Helmet Headaches

The 2009 revision to NFPA 1901, Automotive Fire Apparatus, supposedly will require apparatus manufacturers to state in operator’s manuals that fire helmets are not to be worn in the cab and crew areas. The justification is that fire helmets are not crash helmets by design and may cause more harm than good to a firefighter in the event of an accident. This is a proposed change to the standard and not one that is in effect at this time – nor is there a guarantee of it being approved.

The proposed standard reads:

  •* The following statement shall be included in the operator’s manual: “Fire helmets shall not be worn by persons riding in enclosed driving and crew areas. Fire helmets are not designed for crash protection and they will interfere with the protection provided by head rests. The reduction in head clearance creates a greater hazard to personal safety than the helmets will protect. The use of seat belts is essential to protecting fire fighters during driving.”
  • A. The minimum seat head height values in this standard assume that the occupants are not wearing fire helmets. The use of a helmet detracts from the head clearance and puts the occupant at greater risk of neck or back injury during a rollover or a severe road event.
  • A location for helmet storage shall be provided.
  • If helmets are to be stored in the driving or crew compartment, the helmets shall be secured in compliance with
  • A label stating “DO NOT WEAR HELMET WHILE SEATED” shall be visible from each seating location.

While the merits, benefits or detriments of this requirement aren’t under debate here, there are consequences of the proposed requirement that should be noted. The current standard, Chapter 14, Driving and Crew Areas, states that all equipment (except SCBA) not being used during an emergency response must be stowed, either securely mounted or contained in a fully enclosed and latched compartment capable of withstanding a certain G force. The proposed standard requires the same thing. So if the proposed change is passed, where do firefighters store their helmets when responding to an alarm?


Any heavy object wedged up on the cab dash, sitting on the engine cowl or laying on the cab floor can become a high-velocity projectile in the event of a catastrophic accident. A leather helmet can weigh 5 pounds. Multiply the projectile hazard by the number of helmet-carrying firefighters on board. One fire helmet manufacturer ships a single helmet in a 10- by 15- by 19-inch box, which takes up about 1.65 cubic feet of space – the same area as a case of 24 long-neck bottles. Carryinghelmets might take an entire seating position within a large-capacity crew cab. Many of today’s crew cabs hold EMS compartments that already reduce seating capacity. Is the priority seats for personnel, EMS equipment or fire helmets?

A six-person crew will use about 10 cubic feet of valuable space for helmet storage, whether in the cab or in the apparatus body. If a department purchased a pumper with the NFPA’s minimum required enclosed equipment compartmentation of 40 cubic feet, 25% of it could be used just carrying fire helmets.

Carrying all the helmets in one place means the entire crew will have to line up in front of a single compartment to retrieve them on arrival. Spreading helmet storage throughout the rig may be more prudent, but where the helmets are carried should be decided by the fire department and not a regulatory agency.

As helmets are part of firefighters’ personal protective ensembles, helmets also should be given some protection when stored. Departments wouldn’t want them rolling around on a shelf full of sharp hose fittings and adaptors, nor would they want face shields or safety goggles crushed between a smoke ejector and a compartment wall. This means a financial cost associated with installing fabricated cubbies, bins or designated compartments with multiple shelving – a cost that can be considerable.

While adding a safety standard is positive, most standards and regulations have consequences purchasers must take into account. Regulatory agencies should consider those consequences when forming standards.

Bill Adams is the past chief of the East Rochester (N.Y.) Fire Department and has 40 years of experience in the fire service. He also is a former fire apparatus salesman.

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