URBANA - Firefighters and the heroic work they do were in the minds of many Americans after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The attacks inspired Brad Kurz to help firefighters by making their job safer. Kurz is an industrial design student at the University of Illinois, and he redesigned the standard firefighter helmet for his senior design project.
"What interests me is products people will use and interact with and that will improve people's lives. It's not always such a serious thing" as the safety of firefighter helmets, Kurz said. "Sometimes it's just giving them a product they'll enjoy and have fun with."
The helmet design helped Kurz win a Merit Award from the Industrial Design Society of America. The organization gives the award to one senior at schools with student chapters of the design society.
The award is given for a body of work, not a specific project. Kurz's work also included a personal watercraft, a Parmesan cheese grater and a kitchen scale.
"I always thought I could use my artistic ability to do something more concrete than traditional art," Kurz said. "Also, I was always very critical of products - the refrigerator that doesn't work or is hard to clean. (The helmet design) presented an interesting challenge and an opportunity to improve a lot on existing things."
Kurz began his project by finding out as much information as he could about firefighters' jobs and equipment. He read books and articles, and he talked with a local firefighter and others around the country through an online forum for firefighters. He asked questions and got details about what firefighters liked and don't like.
"Going into the project, I thought they would just be happy if all the problems were solved," Kurz said. "But they wanted it to look cool, which to them meant traditional."
He said firefighters in the Northeast, where the tradition of firefighting has its deepest roots, wear traditional leather helmets treated with a chromium tanning process to strengthen them and make them fire-resistant. In other areas, traditional helmets have become more popular since the Sept. 11 attacks, he found.
The chromium-tanned leather helmets are more expensive and heavier than those made of composite materials though, so Kurz chose to design a helmet to be made from Kevlar-reinforced fiberglass.
"I wanted to make this as accessible as possible to firefighters around the country. A lot of fire departments don't have a lot of money," he said.
The size and bulk of the helmets were the main issues Kurz dealt with.
"They're pretty big. They ride kind of high. They're uncomfortable," he said.
Their height also means they often get caught on things and knocked off a firefighter's head. Kurz's helmet design is 2 inches shorter than the standard firefighter helmet, and it weighs less.
"It eliminates the wobble," he said. "The existing helmet is so high, it sort of wobbles, and its weight makes it uncomfortable."
Kurz said the helmets needed to offer better face protection when firefighters were not wearing a breathing apparatus. The goggles on his design cover the nose and cheekbones as well as the eyes.
"It keeps chunks of metal and glass from flying up in their face and cutting them," he said.
The helmet has knobs to tighten the goggles and a quick-release button to remove them, rather than straps.
Three LED lights in the brim of the helmet eliminate the need for the headlamp now used. The lights are connected to a firefighter's personal safety alarms, and if he stops moving for a certain amount of time, the lights begin to strobe.
Kurz included a built-in utility strap on the helmet for tools such as marking chalk that firefighters now tuck into the rubber strap of the headlamp.
A communication system also built into the helmet provides two channels for communication. It uses an instrument that rests behind the ear and translates the vibrations of a person's speech into voice sounds. That eliminates the need for a mouthpiece that would interfere with a mask, and it reduces background noise.
The helmet includes one other traditional design feature - a brass eagle on the front.
You can reach Jodi Heckel at (217) 351-5216 or by e-mail at email@example.com.