A firefighter’s helmet isn’t merely a piece of protective equipment; it’s a physical representation of the work that these first responders do, the risks that they take and the lives that they live. Many keep their helmets after retirement, a memento of their time in the department. When a helmet appears on eBay’s marketplace, there’s always a story behind it — and the story of the “PIZZ” helmet ended with a town gathering and a family connecting with its past.
Dating from the middle of the 20th century, the helmet is made of black leather, lovingly worn. The red shield on the front, held in place by a handsome brass fitting, is still vibrant. Despite the fact that the white paint on the shield is chipped away or completely missing in places, “Ladder 1 PFD” remains legible.
It isn’t always easy or possible to figure out the backstory of items like these, but this helmet came with a helpful hint: Four letters spelling out “PIZZ” have been scrawled across the back.
The search began after the helmet was listed by a seller in Woodmere, Ohio, in December 2021. The listing caught the eye of Jason Cleary, chief of the fire department in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. Jason, who began his career in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire and recognized the “PFD” insignia, spread the word among former firefighters. One of those was Rich Duddy, who retired from the Portsmouth Fire Department in 2000.
“I was dumbfounded that one of our helmets was for sale,” Rich said. “It seemed like such a shame because important things like that should be passed down from generation to generation in a family.”
That name “PIZZ” rung a bell for Rich. In the late 1970s, he had served for about five years alongside a Stanley Pizz, in the Portsmouth Fire Department. Richhad been a full-time firefighter, while Stanleyhad been what was known as a “call” firefighter, part-timers used when the department needed extra assistance.
The department’s full-time firefighters usually kept their helmets when they retired; “I still have mine hanging up at home,” said Rich. But call firefighters often turned in their equipment so it could be used by others. Another name starting with the letter “J” was also scrawled on the helmet, all but worn away over the years.
To find the Pizz family, Rich posted about the helmet on social media, hoping to find more information. Luckily, residents of Portsmouth’s South End responded, connecting Rich with Stanley Pizz’s son, Rick. Rick had followed in the family tradition as a call firefighter, and had actually worked alongside his father for a time at the Portsmouth Fire Department.
“Both of us were overwhelmed when he heard that the helmet had been found,” said Linda, Rick’s wife of 52 years. “It was wicked special to my husband because he and his father were firefighters together.”
The helmet was listed by Dale Cohen, out in Ohio. The assistant fire chief in Woodmere, Dale is a collector of vintage fire department memorabilia, and had found the helmet at a sale in Limestone, Illinois. Cohen, as a fire department man himself, understood the desire to reconnect the helmet with the family of its original owner. That reconnection, though, needed the actions of the whole town. Sue Doyle, a real estate agent in Portsmouth, saw the social media posts and wanted to help.
My first thought was, ‘Oh, Sue, don’t step on any toes here,’” she remembers. “But I just couldn’t ignore it, either. I know the way that these kinds of mementos can just disappear forever once they are purchased. I decided that I should buy it right away and figure it out later.”
After letting Rich know she intended to purchase it, Sue reached out to Dale, in Ohio.
Sue agreed to reimburse Dale for what he had paid for the helmet, a favor by Dale to a fellow firefighter.
“I rarely cry about anything,” she said. “I’m pretty tough. But a lot of emotions flooded in at once.”
Chief Todd Germain, the current head of the Portsmouth Fire Department, agreed that historic Portsmouth Central Station — where both Stanley and Rich Pizz had served — would be the perfect place to present the helmet to the family. Sue, Rich, and the Pizz family gathered there on February 8, 2022. Also present was Assistant Fire Chief Bill McQuillen, the only current member of the department to have served with Stanley.
“I was thinking about the magnitude of first responders and what they do,” Sue said. “They don’t always get to hear that people appreciate what they do. I hope that if people read about this helmet, it prompts them to do something to say thanks, even if it’s just dropping off cookies at their local fire department.”
The eldest of the three Pizz sons surprised them at the fire station.“He came up to me and he said, ‘Mom, I remember being in this firehouse when I was a little boy,’” said Linda. “I remember seeing Grampy’s helmet when it was hanging in the pantry.”
Rich said he was touched by how grateful the Pizz family was to get the helmet back. They understood how many people had been involved, and clearly were overwhelmed with emotion.
“It took so many people being in the right place at the right time to make it happen,” Rich said. “The helmet is finally back where it belongs. Now his family will have it forever.”