The Fire Helmet
If you gave each retiring jake the opportunity to take one piece of
equipment with him into retirement, he would choose his helmet. There is
no greater symbol of the American fire service than the traditional fire
helmet. People wear helmets every day for a variety of reasons;
construction workers, motorcycle riders, football and baseball players, and
they all share a very similar type of helmet. None of these remotely
resembles the fire helmet.
The helmet worn by the earliest American firefighters was indeed made of leather, but its similarity with the traditional helmet ends there. The first firefighter helmets were stove pipe type helmets similar to the hat made famous by President Lincoln. This helmet was made of rigid leather. The front of the helmet was painted with the name of the company the wearer belonged to. It did afford the wearer with some protection, but it was sadly lacking in several areas. The fire service lumbered along with this stove pipe type helmet until 1836. A New York City Firefighter by the name of Henry Gratacap, who had been a hat maker by trade, changed the whole design. In doing so, he invented what we refer to as the traditional American fire helmet. Gratacap designed this helmet to be absolutely functional. The reinforced conical dome was to protect the head from falling objects, the tall front shield was designed to break windows, the strange brim design was to capture water and redirect it to the rear of the helmet where it could cascade harmlessly off the back of the coat and not down the collar. This long rear brim could also be used to protect the wearer from intense heat. The helmet would be worn backwards and the firefighter would place his chin on his chest and the heat would be deflected away from the face. Old tillermen often wore the helmet like this when responding in heavy rain or snow to give their face a little protection from the elements. This helmet was snapped up by firefighters as soon as it hit the market. You were not doing the job if you didn't wear a CAP.
Innovations to the original design have been relatively slight. A suspension system was added, a liner to protect the neck and ears and eye shields are about the only changes. Manufacturers have tried aluminum, plastic and even rubber, but if you ask the average jake what kind of helmet lie prefers, he will most likely answer the leather. One hundred and sixty one years after its invention. the Gratacap is still the helmet of choice for American firefighters.