But tradition is a barrier to change — even change for the better.
In 20 years of firefighting, Todd Porthan has worn an old-fashioned leather helmet, a lighter traditional helmet and now, a helmet straight out of “Star Wars.”
It sits low on his head and has no brim. When Porthan’s Edina fire squad recently joined other departments at the site of a fire, his helmet drew double-takes and jibes. One firefighter told Porthan he looked like a cosmonaut.
Porthan took the jokes with a grin and said he’s not giving up the new hat. “I like it a lot,” he said. “It’s very comfortable; I almost forget I have it on. … And it’s safer.”
In the proud community of firefighting, it’s tough to buck tradition. Symbolic features like the eagle that has topped fire helmets since the 1800s remain, even though the decoration can endanger wearers by catching on fallen wires or cloth. Some firefighters still wear heavy leather helmets.
“The American fire service is 200 years of progress unimpeded by change,” said Richfield Fire Chief Wayne Kewitsch. “Anything that changes that tradition is looked at skeptically by firefighters.”
But things are changing.
Edina also has armed its firetrucks and ambulances with fire suppression “grenades” that fill burning rooms with a chemical mist after a pin is pulled, tamping down and sometimes extinguishing a blaze.
Many departments have wall-piercing nozzles that allow a fire to be sprayed without firefighters having to enter the building. Scientists are working on locaters that track firefighters in buildings and sensors that could be swallowed or mounted on gear to relay vital signs to a crew chief who could pull firefighters from a building if they showed signs of physical distress.
“We’re always looking at ways to improve,” said Edina Fire Chief Marty Scheerer. The suppression grenades “are expensive, but I think they save money. If we save one firefighter from being injured, that is a huge savings.”
A ‘Jetsons’ helmet
In 2011, Eagan got its first Austrian-manufactured helmet and asked a young firefighter to try it out. Fire Chief Mike Scott was enthused about the increased safety the new helmets offered.
“I believe our traditional helmets are more of a showpiece, with the big eagles on them,” he said. “They’re really pretty, but there’s not as much head protection.”
In the 1990s, before Scott was chief, his department wore leather helmets.
“They were very expensive and extremely heavy, and people were fatigued in their necks,” he said. “I asked why we were using them and it was because they looked cool. And we wanted cool because we were a macho group.”
The young Eagan firefighter thought the new helmet itself was cool, and wore it to couple of calls. Soon other firefighters dubbed him Rosie, after the robot maid on the old “Jetsons” cartoon show, and he didn’t want to wear it anymore.
So Scott asked a veteran to try it out. That firefighter loved it. Now, 61 of Eagan’s more than 100 firefighters are using the new helmets.