There is an old adage in the firefighting community that the profession is 150 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.
The original fire helmet, then called a fire cap, was designed in 1731 by Jacobus Turk for the Fire Department of New York in order to distinguish the department from competitors. (Scarily enough, firefighting was once privatized—just like in the movie ‘Gangs of New York.’)
An ornamental eagle—with no related significance—was added to the helmet design around 1825. A 1930 New Yorker article points out that the eagle “sticks up in the air, it catches… on telephone wires, it is always getting dented… every so often, some realist points out how much safer and cheaper it would be to do away with the eagle, but the firemen always refuse.” The eagle still exists as an integral part of the helmet today.
The colors of the helmet, however, do have importance. Black generally denotes a private/basic firefighter, yellow or red can denote a lieutenant or captain, and white denotes a chief. Sometimes all of a department’s helmets are black, while only the colors of the helmet badges denote rank. Lastly, Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms (ATF) fire investigator helmets are bright blue.