What to do with an Old Fire Helmet?

My old black helmet. The beaver at the front is supposed to represent relentless hard work, focussed mission and dedication. American firefighters have an eagle.

My old black helmet. The beaver at the top front is supposed to represent relentless hard work, focused mission and dedication. American firefighters have an eagle.

It looks incongruous sitting on our dining table. I’ve been trying to find the right place to take a picture of my old fire helmet. I want to capture not only what it looks like, but also something of its spirit. No matter what it seems out of context, like the polar bear in the San Diego Zoo, surrounded by palm trees.

I was promoted to full Captain last week. For the last several years I’ve been an Acting Captain. It’s a bit like being a supply teacher. I was sent out in-charge of crews in my district when the regular captains were sick or on vacation. I wore my red captain’s helmet when I was in-charge of a crew. On those days when I wasn’t needed I’d wear my black helmet and ride on the back of the truck with my regular crew.

I’ll be wearing the red helmet full-time now and my black one has been retired. Wow, how did that happen? My helmet gets to retire before I do!

The question is what to do with it? I don’t want to stick it in the back of a closet or in a box up in the attic. Somehow that just seems wrong. And I can’t just hang it in the hallway with my other hats. It would be like putting a thoroughbred out to pasture with a bunch of donkeys.

A leather fire cap from the 1700's.

A leather fire cap from the 1700’s.

The first firefighting helmet or cap as it was then called, was invented in 1731 by Jacobus Turck. It was made of leather and looked like a short top hat with a broad circular brim. The design of what we think of as the traditional style of fire helmet was developed by Henry Gratacap. The actual date is a subject of debate, but it’s generally thought to have occurred between 1821 and 1835. That basic design is still in use today. As we like to say in the fire service, “Two hundred years of tradition, unimpeded by progress!”

These days most fire helmets are made of composite materials. They’re light and strong. However some helmets are still made of leather. Leather has excellent thermal and electrical insulating properties and is very fire resistant. The only problem is that leather is a little heavier than composites. Here’s an excellent video on how leather helmets are made:

The fire helmet serves several practical purposes. First of all it protects the head from falling debris. The long tail piece prevents water from dripping down the back of your neck. That’s particularly handy when the water has been heated up to scalding temperatures, or on days when it’s just above freezing. The movable transparent plastic face shield gives some measure of eye protection. And the helmet together with the Nomex (fire-resistant) cloth flap that drapes from the brim, provide thermal protection for the head, ears and neck.

A fire helmet can become an extension or expression of the firefighter him or herself.

A fire helmet can become an extension or expression of the firefighter him or herself.

Beyond that however, the fire helmet has become universally recognizable as a symbol of men and women dedicated to community service and self-sacrifice. It stands for courage, integrity, loyalty, honor and pride. It is a symbol not just of who we are as individuals, but what we stand for and what we are committed to do as a team.

Firefighters have often personalized their helmets with designs, sayings and decals. It turns the helmet into a sort of talisman, an extension of the firefighters spirit and personality. Sadly, my department put the kibosh on that a few years back when a few of the brothers went overboard. Firefighters are many things, but we’ve never been overzealous when it comes to political correctness.


Kenny & I have been through a lot together.

For years I’ve been putting a sticker of Kenny from South Park on my helmets, as a good luck charm. So far it’s worked. They may have killed Kenny (many times) but they haven’t got me yet.

Kenny and that old black helmet have been with me for a lot of years. We’ve witnessed tragedy and miracles together. More than any other part of my gear it feels like something more than just a piece equipment. It just feels wrong to simply set it aside. Perhaps, like the best of traditions, the most appropriate thing to do is to pass it on.

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