Getting to the top of the safety business

16:00, Jan 15 2011
helmet
OVER THERE: Pacific Helmets' headgear sees action in most of Australia's bushfires.

Around the world, people fighting fire on the frontline are putting their trust in a Whanganui company that started out with two-wheeled ambitions.

Founded in 1980, Pacific Helmets initially set out to make motorcycle helmets for the Australasian market.

Five years later the company won a contract to supply the New Zealand Fire Service with 10,000 helmets.

Now it supplies some of the world's major fire and rescue services – including Kuwait's fire service, several Swedish brigades, the Hong Kong fire service and a majority of the brigades throughout Australia.

It also manufactures a helmet for farm bikes and is developing a helmet for mounted police.

Marketing manager Grant Bennett believes people want a high quality, proven product and a cheap alternative "is not an attractive option".

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"I think New Zealand has a reputation for producing good quality products," adding: "In this industry, safety is usually more important than price.

"We still supply the New Zealand Fire Service and many of the helmets have been in service for the full 25 years," Bennett says. "So although the initial outlay can be high, the durability and exceptional longevity of the helmet make it a more economical choice in the long term."

Domestic orders now represent only 10% of the company's turnover and its most recent coup is winning a contract to manufacture 3000 helmets for Greek firefighters and rescue staff.

It's taken six years and more than a few hurdles but the ink has almost dried.

Bennett says very few brigades have the exact same requirement, and research and design is a big part of what they do.

"For example, the London fire brigade wanted a rescue helmet for use in the Underground. It had to be compact but with high impact protection."

Perfecting new designs can be a long process, but Bennett said the firm launchs anywhere from four to 10 new designs each year.

"We have just finished design work on an automatically deploying eye protector that sits inside the helmet when not in use. This is a world-first in the emergency service industry [and] will be launched in 2011."

Other than quality, the other two key ingredients are safety and comfort.

"Like any piece of apparel, comfort is very important. The helmets have to be designed so they are comfortable to wear for prolonged periods to reduce the risk of the wearer removing the helmet," Bennett said.

"Weight is a crucial factor for the same reasons."

Another Whanganui company prints the badges and cuts the reflectors for the helmets although some brigades supply their own.

Bennett said 2011 was shaping up to be both challenging and exciting.

"Many traditional markets are not faring well at the moment as governments reduce spending but there are new markets and opportunities opening up that look very positive."

Sunday Star Times