Wildland Fire Helmets – Good Enough?

[This is the introduction to the 2019 Fall Issue of Two More Chains.]

Where is Your Head At?

By Travis Dotson

Your head is important. Head injuries are bad. We do lots of stuff on the fire ground that exposes us to the risk of head injury. Let me reiterate—head injuries are a bad deal. Life-threatening goes without saying, but just as serious is the potential for drastically life-altering impacts.

Intro Helmet Photo

Photo by Kari Greer.

Chances are you have heard of Traumatic Brain Injury, most likely in reference to professional football players or combat veterans. This is serious stuff.

Wildland firefighters regularly face conditions that could result in head injuries—like getting hit by rocks and trees or rolling over in a UTV. Have we accepted this? Let’s look in the pudding for the proof. Is what we wear the best there is? Is it the best we can do?

This issue of Two More Chains is about helmets. (Yes, as we explain in this issue, they are called helmets.) Our heads matter. Are we doing enough to save our skulls?

[This is the cover story featured in the 2019 Fall Issue of Two More Chains.]


History, Insights, Thoughts and Observations

By Bre Orcasitas

Hardhats, helmets, bump caps, lids, brain buckets, whatever you want to call them, we all pop one on our heads before wandering around out in the field, never really stopping to think much about what that helmet can withstand or which standards it’s supposed to meet. Slapping on a hardhat is akin to putting on your seatbelt. It eventually becomes a habit that leaves you feeling slightly naked if you were to be without one.

Luckily, just as with seatbelts, most of us will never have to test the capacity of a helmet. But that doesn’t mean we should remain oblivious about what we’re jamming onto our head and why. After all, the brain is the body’s most valuable asset to protect.

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Excerpt from “Hot Facts of Life on the Fire Line” U.S. Forest Service, Missoula, Montana. Publication date unknown.

The History Part

As with all things, where we are today is a result of what came before. Prior to modern day helmets, the fire community went through many iterations. But it began with what I like to refer to as the “Gentleman’s Hat.” It was enough to keep the sun off, scoop up some water, and walk off the fireline feeling dandy. Yes, indeed, folks looked quite dapper back in the day. Of course, wildland firefighters weren’t the only ones lacking head protection in a profession that needed head protection. Why? Because you can’t use something that doesn’t yet exist. Once helmets finally did come along there was some confusion around how to feel about them. As depicted here, a soldier describes one common reaction when first presented with a helmet:

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Early day wildland firefighter fellas looking dapper in what Bre likes to call their “Gentleman Hats.”

“In 1915, armies hurriedly introduced helmets, widely known as ‘tin hats.’ The soldiers found the new helmets comical. ‘We shrieked with laughter when we tried them on as if they were carnival hats,’ according to one French soldier, but they cut head injuries from 70 percent to 22 percent.” (https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/research/a28088179/army-helmet/)

Cultural stigmas may have been present initially, but those were cast aside once people began to recognize the value of the helmet. So much so in fact, that there have since been studies observing the phenomenon of workers wearing hardhats when they aren’t even required. At some point, the hardhat became a symbol of pride for manual labor workers everywhere.

“Dr. Rosenberg said hardhats had become associated with masculinity and patriotism. There was a confluence of social factors that made hardhats cool that has not happened with hearing protection or respirators, she said.” (From the New York Times article, The Evolution of the Hardhat.)

Flashing forward to modern-day, it’s been 100 years since Edward W. Bullard developed the first hardhat in 1919, which was originally called the “Hard Boiled Hat.” The original version was made of steamed canvas, glue and leather with suspension soon to follow.

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bre_helmet or hardhat sidebarHardhats have been made from a variety of materials throughout the years such as leather, steel, aluminum, fiberglass, and now more recently thermoplastics and high-density polyethylene.

Somewhere between the first hardhat in 1919 and everyone wanting to wear hardhats even if they didn’t need one, came an act of Congress in 1970 aimed at protecting workers on the job.

Since that turning point, specified helmet standards have been generated for just about anything you can think of: construction work, football, hockey, baseball, bicycles, military, mountaineering, snow sports, whitewater, bull riding—you get the idea.

Activity-specific standards ensure that the helmet performs to the task at hand rather than lumping everyone in together under one hardhat. Although it may appear to be relatively basic on the surface, the world of hardhats is quite complex.

Traumatic Brain Injuries have become a focal point for helmet engineers in the last couple of decades surely due to the volume of injuries among active duty military and professional football players. Of course, wildland firefighters have been directly in the line of fire for potential head trauma since the dawn of firefighting due to our inability to control when a tree decides to fall on a person’s head, among other things. So what is the specified standard for a wildland firefighter?

Helmet Jargon




  1. Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

As we began to dig around for information regarding the standards of wildland firefighter helmets it occurred to us that the world of helmet standards is saturated with a bunch of jargon. Rather than dump a pile of “special words” on our readers we decided to give you the quick and dirty explanation—but don’t worry, those of you who are into jargon can follow the links provided to access more detailed information.

Here’s the Breakdown

In 1970 Congress passed the “Occupational Safety and Health Act” which, in turn, incepted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA created some language in the “29 Code of Federal Regulations [CFR] 1926.100(a) Head Protection,” essentially saying that people who need to wear helmets are now required to wear helmets. Good Call.

Wildland firefighter helmets follow some specific guidance which you can find in Chapter 7 of the Red Book. What’s the Red Book? The Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation Operations. The Red Book, which is aimed at federal folks, says that helmets are required to meet the NFPA 1977 Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Firefighting. What’s NFPA? The National Fire Protection Association. The NFPA standard must meet the ANSI Z89.1 requirement for a Type 1, Class G helmet. The ANSI Z89.1 standard derives from ANSI. What’s ANSI? The American National Standard Institute. Somewhere in the process Type 1 helmets also need to pass a “Force Transmission Test” which has something to do with a brick and joules (see sidebar at the end of Bre’s cover story).

Wait, what?? I thought this was the less confusing explanation. Believe it or not, this is the less confusing explanation.

A Breakdown for the Breakdown

In a nutshell, you’d probably want to know that wildland firefighters wear Type 1, Class G helmets. What does that mean?

Type 1 helmets are designed to sustain a blow only to the top of the head, while Class G helmets reduce danger when in contact with low-voltage conductors up to 2,200 volts. Of course, there’s more to it than that—but you’ll need to dive into the sea of jargon (links above) to figure it out.

That explains the fireline helmet, however, often times wildland firefighters require more than one helmet to do the job. Beyond fireline helmets we’ve also got flight helmets, UTV/ATV helmets, and smokejumper helmets to consider, none of which are universal. So here is a quick highlight on these other types of helmets:

Flight Helmets


Until very recently, wildland fire followed the same specifications that the military used for flight helmets. However, in October of 2019 the Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service released a document stating their intentions to begin the search for a new flight helmet standard separate from that of the military standard: https://www.doi.gov/aviation/safety/helmet.

UTV/ATV Helmets

[See this Two More Chain’s issue’s “Shop Talk” section.]

Smokejumper Helmet

The two most utilized smokejumper helmets are the Giro Helmet and POC. Both of these helmets meet the ASTM 2040F-18 Standard, the Snow Sports Standard.

Now that we’ve got all that covered, let’s continue . . .

Looming Questions

These are the standards that we in the wildland fire service go by. After looking these over and comparing our standards with those of paralleling professions we are left with some looming questions:

Why are these standards thee standards? Are the current standards good enough? Do these standards provide the protection that we need?

Can our helmets sustain the types of impact firefighters might endure? Do we actually need a helmet that protects us from voltage? The questions are endless, but the one that matters most is: Are we using the best available helmet for the work that we do?

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From left to right: vintage Bullard Miners Hat, vintage Bullard Hard Boiled Hat (used on the Golden Gate Bridge Project), Hard Boiled Aluminum Safety Hardhat with liner, and a current day helmet.
Photo: https://herculesslr.com/index.php/tag/hard-hats/

No Magic Helmet

Of course, there is no magic helmet that will protect wildland firefighters from any and all harm. This warning advisory for football helmets speaks to that reality: “Warning: No helmet can prevent all head or any neck injuries a player might receive while participating in football. Helmets cannot prevent concussion/brain injury.” (From the November 2019 “Standard Performance Specification for Newly Manufactured Football Helmets”: https://nocsae.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ND002-17m19-Mfrd-FB-Helmets-Standard-Performance-005.pdf.)

However, with countless options available on the market, many of which were designed for professions with similar needs, it’s difficult to believe that the simplicity of our current standard provides us with the best available helmet. On the other hand, Wells Bullard, the current company chief of Bullard (Helmet Company) recently told the New York Times: “The technology of the hardhat really hasn’t changed so dramatically in 100 years. There’s a suspension, and there’s a shell.”

It certainly would be unfair to discount the lives that have been saved under the current helmet structure. Often times it seems quite miraculous that survival is even possible given the significant impacts that firefighters have endured. So, perhaps the area in which we seek improvement isn’t necessarily the survival rate, but in surviving better.

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This is Wally Ochoa’s helmet after sustaining a direct strike to the head from an uprooted snag. Wally received extensive and serious injuries, but survived the incident. To read about this firefighter’s story, follow this link to the Fall 2017 Issue of Two More Chains:

Final Questions

Is it possible to lessen the degree of impact so that survivors don’t have to walk away with brain damage, chronic pain, and/or permanent disabilities? Is there a helmet out there with a higher impact rating, more breathability, or a helmet that could withstand not only top of the head impact, but multi-angle impacts as well?

And if there is such a helmet, how would field-going firefighters learn about the potential alternatives and advocate for their inception into the fire program? Do our current helmet requirements eliminate the possibility of accessing a better option?

These are all questions worth finding the answers to because trees are not going to stop falling on our folks so long as we continue to work in the forest.

[The following three “sidebar” items appear on the Two More Chains page following Bre’s cover story.]

cover story sidebar pieces






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