The history and development of fire helmets

Since the very first firefighter helmets were introduced across the USA and Europe in the 1820s, fire helmets have evolved significantly in response to the introduction of new materials and technology, and to suit the changing nature of incidents and operations. Adil Afzal, MSA Safety’s Marketing Manager for Fire Helmets EMEA, explores the development of fire helmets over time.

North American styles

The original design for the traditional American fire helmet is attributed to Henry Gratacap, who was a fireman and luggage maker in New York City in the 1820s.  Having made luggage for ocean voyages out of specially-treated leather that was durable and could withstand moisture, he had the idea to use the same leather for a protective fire helmet. Named the ‘New Yorker’, it had eight combs (ridges of leather marking the seams) and a reinforced conical dome to protect the head from falling objects.  The wide brim was to capture water and direct it away from the face and neck and down the back of the jacket.  It also served to protect the firefighter from intense heat, with firefighters at times wearing the helmet backwards to fully shield the face.  A few years later, an ornamental feature of a brass eagle was added to the top of the crest, which, although not functional, remains popular in the US to this day.

Two brothers named Cairns were operating a metal badge business at the time and began working with Gratacap to create identification badges for the front of the helmets.  After Gratacap’s retirement, the brothers bought Gratacap’s business and factory in 1869, and the Cairns company continued to design and manufacture fire helmets.  Cairns became the first helmet supplier to introduce impact caps inside the helmet for extra protection, and remains the longest-standing brand supplying North American fire services.

London firefighter with brass fire helmet

The MSA Gallet F1FX

The first jet-style helmet – the GALLET F1

The MSA Cairns

The MSA Cairns 660C Metro

The MSA Cairns New Yorker

The New Yorker helmet is still in circulation and remains relatively unchanged; handcrafted, shaped, stitched and trimmed to last for years with minimum maintenance.  However, today the soft goods such as lining and straps are now removable for easier cleaning.

Based on the same principle, helmets are now available in a modern, sleek and low-profile design and versions with a through-colour fiberglass composite shell resist chipping and cracking, whilst maintaining their colour.

The more modern ‘jet style’ helmets were developed for the North American market, with the MSA Cairns XF1, modelled on the European styles and more streamlined to reduce snag-hazards.

Traditional or modern, all Cairns helmets now include a thermal impact cap for extra protection and to help keep the head cool, and a range of integrated face and eye shields are available.

European styles

In the early 1800s in the UK, Insurance Company Fire Brigades tended to wear leather scull caps of varying designs, but once the first municipal fire service, the Edinburgh Fire Engine Establishment, was formed in 1825, chief James Braidwood insisted on full uniforms and head protection.  He chose a design based on those used in cavalry regiments, made from hardened leather with front and back peaks and a comb on the top. In time, his design was adopted by many other brigades across the country.

Meanwhile in France, the Sapeurs-Pompiers of Paris began wearing distinctive helmets made of brass.  In 1866, Braidwood’s successor and chief of the now Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Captain Massey Shaw, took on the task of creating the perfect helmet for his men.  He travelled across Europe and took inspiration from the French helmets to create his own brass design.  It featured a prominent top comb, a curved shape to absorb impact, and 28 parts which were screwed or soldered together.  Shaw’s design became the standard helmet for most brigades in the UK, and was later adopted by a number of other European countries, including France where it was made by the fire helmet specialist, GALLET.

However, the increase in use of electricity in the early 1900s meant that the brass helmet fell out of favour.  Firemen faced serious injury or death if their helmet came into contact with electric wires, so brass was no longer suitable. Instead, compressed cork and rubber helmets were developed, with variations used until the 1970s, and later versions painted yellow for visibility.

In France, the first aluminium helmets appeared in 1950, followed in 1985 by the invention of the world’s very first Jet Style helmet which was developed in conjunction with the Paris Fire Brigade and revolutionised fire helmet design around the world. This iconic helmet was made with heat-resistant thermoplastic and provided more coverage of the head and ears, with a streamlined look and integrated visors to protect the face.  The Gallet F1 was quickly adopted by fire services across the globe, and by 2003 more than a million had been sold.

The latest generation of the F1 design, which was launched in 2013, offered superior protection and comfort, with significant innovative enhancements.  The shell is made from high-heat resistance engineered thermoplastic, coated with solvent-free and environment-friendly paint, providing excellent protection against mechanical, thermal, chemical, electrical and other typical hazards faced during modern-day firefighting. It features integrated lighting, and is easily adjusted to ensure a perfect fit, with a unique adjustable ocular visor which can be configured to fit over prescription glasses.

Anticipating the ever-evolving landscape in which the modern-day firefighters have to operate in due to the threats posed by a global changing climate, MSA launched a helmet for wildland firefighting and technical rescue which is a versatile head protection system, with a wide choice of integrated accessories, making it perfect for various additional applications, such as urban search and rescue, road traffic accidents, rescue at height and water rescue. It offers a dual beam headlamp, tail lamp, and integrated ocular visor, with attachable goggles, waterproof ear protection, and integrated communication system available. The helmet can be re-configured at any time as requirements evolve in response to new situations.   

Today, millions of firefighters around the world rely on MSA Safety helmets which respond to their changing needs and use the latest technology and design to protect their lives and help them rescue others.   

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