The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Fire Equipment Working Team has issued guidelines for the service life of firefighters’ helmets. Basically, a helmet should be thrown out if it has been more than 10 years since it was manufactured, or if it has been more than 5 years since it was manufactured but with an unknown date of issue.
Here is an excerpt from a memo written by Ralph Gonzales, Acting Chair of the NWCG’s Fire Equipment Working Team, distributed April 19, 2011 under a National Interagency Fire Center letterhead:
There have been recurring fire community concerns regarding the appropriate service life for safety helmets (hardhats), most recently raised after the 2010 fire season. The direction from helmet manufacturers on their product’s service life is somewhat ambiguous, with variables such as the conditions of storage, use, and chemical or heat exposure making a specific expiration or service life age for all helmets impractical. The national caches require clear guidance on helmet service life in order to implement appropriate practices for the issue and refurbishment of these items.
The NFES Subcommittee and the Refurbishment Unit are introducing the following hardhat decision key be to be used for determining hardhat service life. In addition, a supporting “Hardhat Service Life” flowchart has been developed (see attachment). The helmet service life protocols are based on service life recommendations provided by helmet manufacturers in combination with an analysis of the fire program’s support and operating conditions. This decision key is based on a combination of factors including helmet manufacture date, date placed in service, and a used or unused condition.
Here are the helmet inspection guidelines, as detailed in the memo:
Inspection Guidelines: (From Your Hardhat: Inspection and Maintenance 0267 2331. Missoula, MT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Missoula Technology and Development Center. 4p.):
Both the hardhat’s shell and suspension system must be inspected frequently for signs of wear and degradation. Field personnel who wear hardhats should check them at least monthly, if not more frequently.
The shell should be inspected routinely for dents, cracks, nicks, gouges, and any damage that might reduce protection. Any hardhat that shows signs of worn or damaged parts should be removed from service immediately.
The shell material may be degrading if the shell becomes stiff, brittle, faded, or appears dull or chalky. With further degradation, the shell’s surface may flake or delaminate. A hardhat should be replaced at the first sign of any of these conditions.
Here is a simple hardhat inspection for field employees, supervisors, and cache personnel.
- Compress the shell from both sides about 1 inch with your hands and release the pressure without dropping the shell. The shell should return to its original shape quickly, exhibiting elasticity. Compare the elasticity with that of a new shell. If the shell being tested does not have as much elasticity as the new shell, or if the shell cracks, it should be replaced immediately.
- Inspect the suspension system closely for cracks, cut or frayed shell straps, torn headband or size adjustment slots, loss of pliability, or other signs of wear. Remove and replace any suspension that is damaged.
Many people will be surprised that a helmet (I prefer the term “hard hat”) must be thrown out after five to ten years. I will assume that the memo is only referring to plastic hard hats, and wonder what the service life of aluminum hard hats is. Some of us lament the decision by the wildland fire agencies to require non-electrical conductive hard hats, when most wildland firefighters don’t work around electrical wires.