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Museum Piece Can't Supplant Tradition : Firefighters Cool to New Helmet Style

September 20, 1987|PATRICK TWOHY | Associated Press

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — The distinctive red helmet that firefighters have worn for a century and a half will not yield easily to a futuristic hat that looks like a streamlined bowling ball with a windshield.

Alex Bally, associate professor of design at Carnegie-Mellon University, has learned that the hard way. He designed an award-winning fire helmet deemed worthy of display in New York City's Museum of Modern Art.

But it appears that few firefighters are warming up to it.

"A lot of people have said: 'Oh no, I could never wear that.' They have said it looks like a motorcycle helmet or an astronaut's helmet. People have even said it looks like a 'Star Wars' helmet," said James Byrnes, product line manager of Mine Safety Appliances Co. of Pittsburgh, which manufactures Bally's helmet.

Triple Crown

Bally, 48, completed his basic helmet design in 1984. It soon won the design world's triple crown.

The Industrial Designers Society of America gave Bally its IDEA award for new equipment design and ID Magazine editors honored him in their annual design review in 1985. Last year, New York's Museum of Modern Art added the hat to its permanent design collection.

Bally's sleek new helmet is approximately the same size and weight--about 45 ounces--as the traditional rimmed helmet whose basic design can be traced to 1828 and New York City volunteer fireman Henry Gratacap.

Bally's helmet lacks a visor and has a lower center of gravity, which he said makes it fit better and feel lighter.

Bally said fashion was a minor consideration. The traditional helmet, beefed up to meet new safety standards set in the 1970s, he said, "looked like a big umbrella on your head. It looked totally out of scale."

Sources of Idea

Bally said his research borrowed from Greek war helmets, medieval jousting garb, even turtle and lobster shells.

"Inspiration," Bally said, "comes after a lot of hard work."

Gordon Routley, a fire official in Phoenix, Ariz., is one who is not buying Bally's new helmet.

"It looks funny," he said.

Bally and Mine Safety Appliances would not disclose how many new helmets have been sold since they went on the market last September. But Bally conceded that he is up against firefighting tradition as strong as the bright red hook and ladder or the spotted Dalmatian at the firehouse.

"We're looking at the strange intersection between safety and symbolism," Bally said. "Hats are symbols of occupation and social status. If you can motivate the firefighter to like wearing his hat, he'll wear it. I'm not at all sure I'm successful at that."

Fire officials in Reno, Nev., bought Bally helmets for about a third of the city's 180 firefighters who chose it over the more traditional topper. But Reno Fire Marshal Marty Richard remains skeptical.

'The Jetsons'

"I think they like the fit," Richard said. "I kind of view it myself as dealing with 'The Jetsons,' " the television cartoon featuring a 21st-Century family.

A few other departments also are trying the new look.

Atlanta fire Lt. Nathaniel Grissom said his department will try a few of Bally's helmets.

"It looks pretty good," Grissom said. "I think it would be acceptable as long as it provides the safety that we're looking for."

But Ken Bruynell, a Fire Department spokesman in Boston, said the city's 1,650 firefighters are sticking to tradition because the newfangled headgear does not seem to measure up.

"We've tried other types and they're too lightweight," Bruynell said. "They blow off. They shatter. Leather is really durable. We have guys who have had the same helmet for 40 years. They last forever unless you run them over."

Departments that take pride in their spit-and-polish traditions may not be ready for Bally's sleek design, said Kristina Goodrich, spokeswoman at the Industrial Designers Society of America.

'New Image'

"The industry is outpacing the consumer," she said. "The consumer has to get used to the new image of a high-tech modern firefighter."

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