It’s no surprise that structural firefighting footwear is probably one of the dirtiest components of the set after being used in the fire field. After all, if there’s one piece of clothing that’s in near-constant contact with the scene of the fire, it’s the boots worn by firefighters.
Let’s take a look at how firefighter footwear is changing and what to expect in the future, taking a close look at some possible upcoming changes to the standard that defines footwear design and performance.
Advances in Firefighter Footwear
Decades ago, firefighters wore long coats and waders. At that time, boots were more or less “waders” that extended high over the leg to protect the lower leg and were exclusively made of rubber, often with textile inner liners.
Even after hip boots became obsolete, much of the footwear worn by firefighters continued to be rubber. Rubber was considered relatively waterproof to keep firefighters’ legs and feet dry, as well as more protective and durable. However, these boots tended to be relatively heavy and sometimes did not provide adequate ankle support, which could be a problem since firefighters routinely traverse uneven surfaces, especially during aggressive interior fire operations.
Leather boots have been around for a long time for different professions and firefighting is no exception. Heavy-duty work boots with steel or composite toe caps are the mainstay of many working populations, and these boots have been adapted to the needs of firefighters over the past few decades. The key is to ensure that the boots are flame resistant, which is generally the case for most leathers, and to provide sufficient insulation against high heat in combination with “waterproof” inner layers and the characteristics physical protection required.
Decades ago, rubber was the most common style of firefighter’s shoe, but today many firefighters wear leather boots, usually because they are lighter, provide better ankle support and provide a sufficient level of physical and thermal protection on the firing range. Many of these boots have evolved to an athletic fit for greater ergonomic performance in terms of comfort and impact on firefighter agility.
Different designs of leather boots emerged, from pull-on or pull-on boots to those with sophisticated zippers and laces for quick on and off. The rubber boots have also been redesigned to be lighter and more flexible, while offering a better fit. Several improvements have been proposed by several manufacturers to meet adequate levels of sizing and function.
The impact of standards
Part of this transition was prompted by the existence of NFPA standards for firefighter footwear. The very first standard – NFPA 1974 – was promulgated in 1987.
At that time, shoe requirements were relatively simple – boots had to be 8 inches high, have a defined heel, and be available in a range of full and half sizes for men and women in at least two widths. The performance criteria focused on boot heat and flame resistance, and introduced two tests for conductive and radiant heat resistance as a means of providing minimum thermal insulation.
Physically, the boots had to meet an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) requirement for toe impact and compression resistance, as well as have upper materials that demonstrated adequate resistance to punctures and cuts. and sole materials that resist abrasion. The boots had to have a ladder shank (to stiffen the outsole) and all metal parts had to be corrosion resistant. The new standard further included a boot leak test after 100,000 boot flexes to simulate wear and required boots to be electrically resistant.
Fast forward to today, and there have been six different editions of NFPA standards that have dealt with structural firefighting footwear. In 1997, the third edition requirements became a consolidated standard for the complete set in NFPA 1971: Standard on Proximity Assemblies for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fightingwhich included boots as well as clothing, helmets, gloves and balaclavas.
The most recent edition of this standard in 2018 was the result of several changes and new requirements regarding footwear design and performance. For example, several years ago the minimum boot height was increased to 12 inches and then reduced to 10 inches with additional criteria set for the height of waterproof layers and the physical performance of the boots. While some performance requirements have remained the same, new areas have been added for liquid chemical and firefighting liquid penetration resistance, outsole traction, and eyelet attachment strength. New tests have been adopted for flame resistance, liquid integrity and abrasion resistance of the sole.
However, if you look at the types of properties boots are subjected to to qualify as structural boots, the list of performance attributes has only changed slightly over the years of boot design and performance standardization. More attention was given to other parts of the set, namely clothing, helmets and, to a lesser extent, gloves.
Contamination of Boots and Firing Range
Although contamination issues have mainly focused on clothing, it is recognized that footwear should also be considered, as boots are likely to come into contact with soot from fires and other soils and are easily contaminated.
In the early 2000s, a supplier study that examined the contamination of boots with hazardous materials found that rubber boots were more likely to retain certain contaminants than leather boots. Additionally, we know that other differences in footwear construction and materials can contribute to firefighters’ secondary exposure to contamination and ease of cleaning after fire exposure. The persistence of some of this contamination remains unknown, although work undertaken by NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation has shown varying degrees of contamination of footwear both externally and internally from different types of boots. In many cases, contamination levels inside have been the same or higher than those outside. Related research is ongoing to examine the effectiveness of certain cleaning methods, such as manual washing and ultrasonic cleaning, in removing any lingering contamination.
Most firefighters are likely to have a single pair of structural boots that are separate from any station or regular work boots. Nevertheless, the boots tend to be cleaned infrequently as the cleaning process is quick and can put the boots out of commission while they dry. This can deter dealing with boot contamination. This further means that the boots can be a continuing source of contamination exposure when worn as well as when brought back to station in the device and vehicles.
Contemplation of new requirements
NFPA 1971 is in the process of revising its standards for structural firefighting clothing, including boots.
For the next edition of the standard which will be published at the end of 2023, several modifications responding to contemporary needs are under consideration:
- Review of minimum shoe height to allow for graduated heights for individual firefighters of different stature;
- Improvements to the way liquid integrity of footwear is measured;
- Evaluation of liquid absorption and drying time;
- Assessing shoe flexibility that may be related to agility; and
- Introduction of an optional shoe breathability test.
Each of these proposed areas is an attempt to address aspects related to the comfort or performance of footwear that may be relevant to their contamination and cleaning. Short of actual contamination and cleaning testing, which is still a separate area under investigation, the hope is that the new measures will encourage further improvements to address ergonomic and contamination resistance features. . Some manufacturers are already moving in this direction, and the potential adoption of new requirements could drive this process.
Understand the needs of firefighters
There is a wide range of footwear options for firefighters on the market today. Therefore, there are many good choices available for individual firefighters, although departments make the general choices for what firefighters should wear as part of their structural firefighting duties. Therefore, understanding if the needs of firefighters are being considered is an important step in considering any new direction in the development and qualification of footwear products. As such, we have developed a little survey on the subject to better understand the problem. We look forward to receiving your feedback on this to help inform the NFPA 1971 committee of potential new directions in the certification of structural firefighting footwear. We hope you will participate in the firefighter shoes survey.
Note: The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.