WEBSTER, Texas (Houston Chronicle) – One of the most iconic symbols of firefighting has been the traditional helmet with its shield and wide brim.
But you won’t see those anymore on firefighters in the city of Webster after the city purchased new helmets that Fire Chief Patrick Shipp says are safer and weigh less. But they do look different. Much different — like a cross between a motorcycle helmet and what an astronaut might wear.
The new helmets, which began to be used on March 27, have spurred some questionable looks and raised eyebrows. While other departments in the United States have made the switch, Webster is the first department in Texas to do so, according to the city’s Facebook page.
“One of the best things about fire departments is tradition, but that can also be a downfall,” Shipp said. “The fire service in general has had about 100 years of advancement impeded by tradition.
“What we had was the traditional style helmet that’s been around since like 1780,” he said. “It hasn’t really changed, and we know there are better helmets; so we decided to look around to see what better and safer products were out there that we might be able to utilize.”
The department found ideas from the United Kingdom.
“We started looking at our brothers and sisters across the pond in England, who, by the way, have been fighting fires way longer than us, and they made the switch (to the new style helmet) maybe 25 to 30 years ago,” Shipp said. “They put a lot of research into this newer style; so we leaned on that research and found out that this newer style is safer, lighter is able to integrate new and higher (technology) and basically has more options.”
Webster firefighter Shane Martin straps the new-style fire helmet that his department is using. (Kirk Sides / Staff Photographer)
The options with the old-style helmet were limited — a firefighter can have a shield, which is either down when it is in use or on top of the helmet when it isn’t, or goggles, which, likewise, are either on when they’re in use or on top of the helmet when they’re not. This, said Shipp, can pose potential issues during a fire.
“You’re crawling around in the dark with goggles or a shield on top of your helmet, and that creates an entanglement hazard,” he said. “With the new helmets, there are two different shields for when you need them — one that just comes down and covers your eyes and a larger shield that comes down and covers your whole face. If you don’t need them, they integrate back inside the helmet, which takes away that snagging hazard.”
While all helmets vary somewhat in weight, traditional ones often weigh more than 4 pounds. The new helmets weigh 3.3 pounds.
“One of the issues firemen have had historically is neck problem from the old-style helmets,” Shipp said. “They’re heavy. They put a huge strain on your neck, so if you’re out fighting a fire for eight hours with this big heavy helmet on, it can really put a strain on you.
“These new helmets can not only potentially extend the amount of time you fight a fire, but they could potentially extend your career.”
The new helmets cost about the same as those in the old style — around $400 each — and the city was in the process of purchasing all new gear for each of its 20 firefighters anyway; so the timing was right to switch. Staff were given their helmets the week of March 18 to familiarize themselves with the gear.
Breaking the traditional look, while beneficial, hasn’t necessarily been highly anticipated by all members of the department.
Webster Fire Department has replaced its traditional helmets with lighter, more technologically advanced ones, left. (Kirk Sides / Staff Photographer)
“It’s not that any of them are really unhappy about having the new helmets,” Shipp said. “These aren’t the helmets their dads or grandfathers wore. When a firefighter came to their elementary school to talk to them and they decided they wanted to be a firefighter, this isn’t what that person looked like. This isn’t what their heroes, for lack of a better word, looked like. It’s a different look, but none of them are necessarily unhappy with it. It will just take some adjusting.”
Ultimately, the choice came down to safety and liability.
“Our city wants our firefighters to be as safe and effective as possible when they’re out there serving the public,” the chief said. “Knowing what we know now, knowing there’s a better, safer and more effective product out there, would we be liable if we didn’t get it? We know it’s better and we have the money to buy it for them — so why wouldn’t you do it?”