“This is exactly why we bought these hardhats. This takes care of any doubt that anybody ever had—even if these hardhats look weird or they cost more money. This clarifies everything for everybody. Because now I’ve got an employee who’s going to go home to his family.”
Curtis Rasmuson, FMO, Bighorn National Forest
By Paul Keller
This is a hit-in-the-head survivor success story that should interest you.
After the recent Two More Chains on helmets was posted, Jon Warder, Fire Management Officer on the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, contacted Travis Dotson, our Analyst here at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC).
Jon told Travis how his Forest’s Wildland Fire Module members wear a special Kevlar-based wildland helmet that he feels are an improvement over the traditional helmets most fire crews wear. (While they use the “Pacific New Zealand” made in New Zealand, these heavier Kevlar-based helmets are also available from other companies.)
Jon explained how he is certain this unique helmet saved the life of Jason Rodriguez, his Wildland Fire Module’s Superintendent. Would Travis want to talk with Jason about his experience? You bet!
So Jason and Travis got on the telephone and had a lessons learned conversation. Travis started by asking Jason for some background details.
Before you talk about your recent helmet survivor story, could you explain how you guys first heard about these special helmets?
One of our guys went out on a Falling Boss assignment in Oregon where he worked with a professional faller who was wearing this style hardhat. It’s what the fire crews use in New Zealand. They also use them for mountain rescue type work there.
So they had this tree that was approximately 250-feet tall. While they were working on it, a branch—six to eight inches in diameter—came out of it. That limb came down and smacked that faller in the head pretty good.
His hardhat successfully repelled a good amount of force. That limb dented-in his hardhat just a little bit. They didn’t pull pieces out of his head or anything like you would expect. That hardhat took the brunt of the force. It was caved-in a little on the inside but not a whole lot, probably about two inches in from the hardhat’s bottom side.
Everyone there was certain that hardhat saved this guy’s life.
So when our employee came back, he told us what had happened. After that, Curtis Rasmuson, my FMO, was like, “We’re not using our hardhats anymore. You guys are getting these New Zealand style ones. I don’t care how much money they cost.”
He said that getting these hardhats is going to save somebody’s life.
And when you look at all the falling incidents that have happened and people who got smacked on the melon, it makes sense. I mean, we run around in the woods 90 percent of the time, somebody’s melon is going to get smacked at some point.
So that’s how we came to be wearing these hardhats. You need to give people the best safety equipment possible. We feel that these hardhats are better than what we had been using.
What does the helmet look and feel like?
It’s a ball-cap style hardhat. So you’re not going to get that shading on the back of your neck that you do with a full brim hardhat. It’s just a little bit heavier, but not that much—you really don’t feel much of a difference. In fact, none of my folks complain about them being any heavier than the other ones were. Inside the helmet there’s a built-in suspension system. It also has a ratchet tightener in back.
At the end of the first season that we wore these new hardhats I asked everyone for their input. Everyone agreed that they liked them.
Do people ask you about them when you’re out and about?
Definitely. Wherever we go, quite a few people ask us about them. And lots of people take pictures of them. On the last burn assignment I went on, I had two of the FMOs there take a real interest in them. I tried to give them the same explanation and information that I’m talking to you about right now. They were very, very impressed with them.
When we first got them, we got some flack just because they do look different. People would say: “Those are kind of weird – blah blah blah.” It’s just change, just like anything else. Nomex has changed since I first started. Everything changes from time to time. These hardhats are just another one of those deals where people are starting to find different safety equipment that’s working better. I can see it’s going to keep changing; it’s going to keep evolving. And I think that’s what needs to happen.
How much do they cost?
The cost is around $200 to $300 each. But look at some of the other things we spend money on. I think they’re worth the price, for sure.
So what happened to you last summer?
I was doing a recon on some prescribed fire units. It’s quite a hike to get around most of the units, some are very remote and really overgrown with a lot of heavy dead and down, everything you can imagine.
The slopes are anywhere from 30 to 80 percent. I’d been hiking for about an hour and a half. Everything was going OK. That’s when I was crossing a huge rock scree and heard something above me. I turned to look—it was a huge boulder headed right for me.
I knew I didn’t have enough time to get out of the way. So I quickly turned my back. I had my pack on and everything—my hardhat, all my PPE. That boulder hit me square in the back and sent me flying. It launched me a good 10-feet forward.
My hardhat remained on top of my head. My head smacked straight into another rock.
I got up. I was oriented. I knew where I was. I actually had cell service and called my Forest FMO and told him where I was. With the GPS on my phone I pinged the location and sent it to him—just as a precaution.
The impact cracked my helmet pretty good. It took a nice little piece out of the top of my hardhat (see photo). But that Kevlar helmet did what it was supposed to do. A little piece of Kevlar was peeled off on top and it was dented in a little bit, but it wasn’t anything crazy.
I feel like that hardhat saved my life.
I was able to do a 45-minute hike down the hill to a road and got picked up there. We headed into town and did all the paperwork stuff that you get to do.
When I got back into my office my FMO called me.
“This is exactly why we bought these,” he said. “This takes care of any doubt that anybody ever had—even if these hardhats look weird or they cost more money. This clarifies everything for everybody. Because now I’ve got an employee who’s going to go home to his family.”