Firefighter Helmet History


The creation of the firefighting helmet dates back more than 250 years. Since the time of its introduction, the firefighting helmet has been altered for better protection, comfort and function. The original fire helmet had a "stovetop" design, similar to the hat Lincoln wore, while later designs shrunk in size. Since the mid 1700s, firefighters have been required to wear safety helmets while on duty.

Early Design

  • The original fire cap, invented by Jacobus Turck of New York City in 1731, had a round shape with a high crown and a narrow rim. Mathew DuBois made improvements to the design by adding iron wire to the edge of the brim, providing resistance to moisture, warping and heat. The fire cap, made of leather, became mandatory for all firefighters on duty in 1762.

Later Design

  • Between 1821 and 1836, Henry Gratacap, a luggage maker and volunteer firefighter, designed his own leather helmet for firefighters later named the "New Yorker." Adopted by the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) during the late 1800s, the "New Yorker" was an "eight-comb" design, meaning that it had eight different segments. The leather used for the helmet was the same used by Gratacap for his luggage design, which was specially treated to withstand wetness without rotting. These helmets often were worn backwards to protect the firefighter's face against heat.


  • Henry Gratacap's firefighting helmets served many functions and, over time, were altered to better carry out these functions. Helmets were eventually made with 16 combs, which made them stronger and more durable against heat. A reinforced dome protected the firefighter from falling objects, and the rear brim of the helmet was used to protect against heat on the back of the neck. Throwing the helmet out a window soon became the universal sign of a firefighter in need of help.


  • The Cairns Brothers developed the idea of putting badges on the front of the helmet for identification purposes. The badges were in the shape of a guitar pick and contained a brass eagle that extended from the top of the helmet to hold the badge in place. The idea for the eagle is credited to an unknown sculptor who designed a figure for a volunteer firefighter's grave. The figure on the grave was that of a firefighter, emerging from flames holding a sleeping child in one hand and a trumpet in the other. The figure wore a helmet with an eagle on it, which soon became part of the helmets worn by firefighters to this day.


  • Traditionally, the color of a firefighter's helmet indicated the rank and department of the individual firefighter. For example, chiefs wore all white helmets, while captains and lieutenants wore helmets with a white front and either a black or a red back. Black helmets were for firefighters in the engine company, red helmets for those in the ladder company, and blue helmets for those in the rescue company. Most firefighters today wear yellow helmets. Visors, or eye shields, as well as ear-flaps have been added to modern helmets.

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  • Photo Credit Fireman on Emergency Scene image by Jeffrey Zalesny from new york new york image by Lombok from Fire image by Luke Haverkamp from
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