Volunteer Firefighter International

Inside the Fire Helmet

After nearly a decade of use, here are some comparative insights into the European-style firefighting helmet

By Rick Markley

The American fire helmet is quite possibly a more iconic representation of this country’s fire service than any other symbol—even the Dalmatian. Introduce a radical design departure, such as the European helmet, and strong reactions are sure to follow. You need look no further than online chat rooms for evidence of this. There are pros and cons to both designs and they merit further exploration.

In August 2010, I traded in my traditional helmet for a brand new European-design helmet. And after nine years of head time, I’ve formed more than a few impressions.

The first inescapable aspect is cost. My department furnishes bare-bones traditional helmets, but allows its firefighters to buy their own so long as they are black and NFPA approved. With all the bells and whistles—that being stow-away face shield, stow-away eye protection and built-in light—the helmet set me back $400. That’s easily $100 more at the time than a comparably equipped American style helmet. Yet, it’s less than a leather helmet, which can run you five bills. And newer European-design helmets have come down in price, a bit.

One of the knocks against the European design is that without the rear bill, water will make its way down the back of your coat. Guilty as charged, which is something I learned in the small hours of a January morning. Longer skirting off the back of the helmet may relieve this problem (which I’ve added — it works). On the other side, not having the long rear bill means that the helmet does not bang against the SCBA when your head is raised, as it is likely to be when you are crawling around. The absence of a bill also makes the helmet more balanced on your head.

Head protection

That the helmet comes over your ears and covers the back of your head, arguably provides better protection against falls and blows to the head. Thankfully, I have no experience in this area. I did, however, sustain a blow to the head wearing a traditional helmet during a training exercise. The force was enough to rip both helmet and SCBA mask off my head. I doubt the same blow would take my European-design helmet off, but hope this too goes untested. The additional shell on the European helmet does make much hotter in the summer months.

Additionally, the chinstrap on my Euro helmet is better than was the one on my traditional helmet. The helmets sold in Europe have a cup that goes over the chin—similar to an American football helmet. The NFPA-approved version has no cup, but does have a three-point strap that anchors at two points on each side of the helmet. The Euro helmet’s smooth exterior does not allow for accessories, such as additional lights or door wedges. One model, not mine, does have brackets below the ears for clip-on flashlights that protrude out from the sides. The European helmet also doesn’t have any catch points; it never got hung up when I went through entanglement mazes. It also means no leather shield with your badge number on the front.

The European helmet’s light is angled downward at 45 degrees, if the tip of your nose were the vertical axis. It does an adequate job of lighting the path in front of you, especially when on your hands and knees, without a lot of glare coming back from the smoke. However, because that is the only light option, you cannot have a more powerful flashlight aimed at a 90-degree angle, as you can with the American helmets. One night, another firefighter and I were making sure the contents of a minivan were completely extinguished. His American helmet-mounted flashlight was much more effective for that task than was mine.

Sights and sounds

One of the cooler features of my helmet is the safety visor and eye shield. Both slide up into the body of the helmet. Both are fully adjustable, with the face shield coming down well past the nose. And you can use both at the same time, but you cannot use either with your SCBA mask. The nice thing about having both tucked away inside the helmet is that they stay clean and out of the way when not in use. When the face shield is fully extended, it will fog up, similar to an SCBA mask, sans a bypass valve to clear it. Replacing the visors is slightly more complicated on the European design than it is on the American helmets.

One of the knocks against the European helmet is that it reduces your ability to hear. Again, guilty as charged. With the shell completely covering the ears, sounds and voices are definitely muffled. And while not a safety issue, you will hear a slight echo when speaking; it is similar to talking in a cave or tunnel.

The European-design helmets are made to accommodate SCBA masks that clasp onto the helmet’s exterior. Like most American firefighters, I wear the traditional under-the-helmet mask. The helmet fits very nice over the mask and feels secure.

There also is a slight difference in adjusting the size. Both helmet designs have a knob that can be cranked to expand or constrict the headband. On my helmet, the knob is on the exterior and large enough to adjust with gloves on. This is a good thing, as the helmet does begin to pinch and squeeze your head after prolonged use, well, my head anyway.

A curiosity

But the thing that should be least talked about, but will be most talked about is the look. Darth Vader, Marvin the Martian, Frenchie (mine’s German, by the way) and fighter pilot are some of the things I’ve been called. The fire service is a proud bunch, and rightly so. It is an industry that places high value on tradition, and the European-looking helmet is anything but traditional—far more nontraditional than even the turtle-shell helmet. I’ve experienced three categories of reactions from other firefighters: love it, hate it or want to poke it with a stick. I suspect those who hate it, do so more because they love their American-style helmet so much—I understand that. Those who love it appreciate the novelty and some of the design features. Those who want to poke it with a stick are so curious they will ask to touch it, wear it, and I’ve even had some who took photos with it.

Not content with chat-room advice and my limited experience, I sought a helmet guru and found Mike McKenna. McKenna began studying helmets in 1989, a year after joining the NFPA 1971 committee, which writes personal protective equipment standards. Now retired, he’s a 32-year fire-service veteran with 20 years as captain and seven years as district safety officer. He now runs his own fire-service consulting firm.

McKenna is an unapologetic and confirmed leatherhead. Yet, he test drove a European-design helmet for several months. “Its cool factor is zero,” he says of the helmet design.

Making a better mousetrap

Benjamin Mauti concurs that the look is the largest obstacle for European-design helmets in the American market. Mauti is MSA’s product line manager for first-responder products. “The image of the American firefighter is pretty iconic,” he says. “And, the Euro-style helmet does not fit that image.” In May 2002, MSA purchased CGF Gallet, a French-based fire helmet manufacturer. MSA now sells an NFPA-approved European-style helmet in the U.S.

Hans Detzhlofer is vice president of fire and safety equipment for Rosenbauer International. Rosenbauer sells a full line of PPE in Europe. One of its helmets is NFPA compliant and available in the United States. He says that it will take big-money marketing campaigns and field tests to convince the American fire service to swap their traditional helmet for the European design.

While clearing the cool hurdle is a large barrier for manufacturers looking to sell European-style helmets in the United States, they also must meet NFPA 1971. The European standard covering helmets is EN443, which McKenna says is like comparing apples to oranges when lining that standard up against NFPA 1971.

The reason, he says, is the different philosophy in attacking fire. Europeans firefighters don’t perform as many interior attacks as their U.S. counterparts. Where the NFPA standard puts a premium on surviving flashover conditions, the European standard puts more focus on getting the job done from the outside, such as having a lighter-weight helmet.

“Their mission is different,” he says. “Their standard is not wrapped up in survivability in flashover like ours is.”

Detzhlofer says the main difference between EN443 and NFPA 1971 as it applies to helmets is the amount of radiant heat the helmet must sustain. “What we have seen in several tests is that some NFPA-approved helmets cannot meet the requirements of … EN443 as the temperature after radiant heat is much higher than during (an) NFPA test,” he says.

Invading America

Despite the difference in the standards, it is relatively simple for European-design manufacturers to meet NFPA 1971. The design already works and it is only a matter of tweaking the materials, McKenna says.

Back then, the European-style helmet is difficult to find. They won’t pop up on searches at shopping sites. I finally found mine through a dealer in Wisconsin; he had one left. This scarcity is most likely the result, not the cause, of a low demand for this style helmet in the United States. Today, the helmets are much easier to find online and at tradeshows.

“If manufacturers can show a significant reason to break from that (American) image, there may be a chance for success,” Mauti says. “The market share for the Euro-style helmet is very low. We are not aware of any major departments using the Euro-style helmets.”

Detzhlofer says that Rosenbauer’s position in the U.S. helmet market is negligible at present.

Until recently, MSA had been offering its Cairns modern-style, or turtle shell, helmet in Europe and Asia. Mauti says that, as in America, fire departments in those countries also preferred their historic style. And as with American departments, manufacturers will have to show a compelling reason for European or Asian fire departments to switch to a different style.

From a pure safety standpoint, McKenna says that the materials that go into the helmet are more important than its design. New plastic-shell helmets are very pliable and will provide good protection. But as it ages and the polymers leave the helmet, it will become more rigid and provide less protection. This, he says, is true for both designs with plastic shells.

That said, don’t look for McKenna to trade-in his leather-covered helmet for the Darth Vader look.

“I don’t think the American fire service wants to look European,” McKenna says. “At the end of the day, I still want to wear a dead animal skin and I want to look traditional American.”

And of all those who have seen my helmet, be it in awe, disdain or curiosity, no one has asked me where he or she can buy one. Those interested in switching to a European-design helmet—and not just for a one- or two-week trial period, but by way of cracking open the wallet and dropping four C-notes—will need thick skin and a high collar.

This article was previously published by Penton Media.

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