Relating the history of the firefighting uniform, this article travels the spectrum from the changes implemented in the helmet and protective gear from the 1800s to today. These innovations are also tied to a rich tradition within the family of American firefighters.
As protection for the firefighter's head, the helmet is the most recognised piece of a firefighter's uniform, and it carries a rich history with it. Its inception goes back to 1836, when H.T. Gratacap invented the first model in America, made of leather to protect the firefighter's head during a fire from falling debris. It also allowed water to flow off the back of the brim. This was added when the Cairns brothers decided to add a badge to the front to identify the firefighting company that the individual belonged to.
As the design improved, the leather was made stronger by adding ridges to the inside. The more ridges (or combs) the helmet had, the stronger it was. Designers experimented with different materials, one disastrous example being aluminium for its ability to draw heat and electricity. Leather once again became the dominant choice, and into the 20th century, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) laid down standards for design. The 1970s brought great change to the fire helmet, with a bonnet to cover the ears and neck, use of engineered plastics, and a face shield for added protection.
Rushing into the flames, firefighters need effective gear that protects them, and the protective clothing offered over the past century has gone through many changes. If you were a firefighter in the 19th century, you would be answering calls in trousers and a shirt made from wool. This concept was based on wool's talent at keeping the firefighter warm in cold weather. The outfit was rounded off with a personal set of gloves and a pair of leather boots that reached up to the knees.
Similar to the helmet, World War I brought about great advances in protective gear. The efforts of a multitude of organisations made standards for the gear higher, including requiring a new outer layer that protected the firefighter from heat up to 260 degrees Celsius, a water barrier layer and a third for heat protection. These same standards were applied to gloves that protected from heat, injury and being electrocuted. Over time into the later 20th century, the temperature protection increased to 649 degrees Celsius through the use of synthetics. New suits included an alarm to alert others if the firefighter becomes injured or passes out from smoke inhalation so that he can be found.
Preventing injuries and burns to a firefighter has been the greatest challenge to designers when trying to find materials, clothing and gear that fit into the job description. The helmet has survived with its original design almost intact, resembling its 19th century predecessor, but with technical changes and adaptations. The turnout gear has seen the most alteration from its original wool cousin, from new layers of moisture and heat protection to newer synthetic blends in its make-up.
Advances in firefighting uniforms continue to improve each year as new standards are put into place, new materials are invented, and experience lends itself to innovation. Work is under way on a suit called the "bunker gear ensemble," which will offer a barrier if the firefighter faces biological or chemical hazards on the job. The idea is to make a suit of turnout gear that is a barrier in itself to all types of hazards that may occur. As these changes are implemented, the firefighter of the future will have the best protection available.
Safety From Innovation
The continual battle to fight against the unknown obstacles that can creep up in a fire relies on its best solution, namely continued experimentation in design and materials. This is the key factor in redefining what protects a firefighter at the next call. Looking back to the wool uniforms and leather helmets, and at today's synthetics and advances, the firefighter's uniform encompasses a proud and varied history.