Know where you stand
Published: 01 January, 2007
Did you know that there is a new European standard for firefighters’ boots?
The chances are you didn’t, but new standard EN 15090 became official in mid August this year and its ramifications could have significant impact in terms of choice and safety. And like so many of these European standards it has its own set of idiosyncrasies that buyers of firefighters’ boots need to be aware of.
Clive Newton of UK safety boots supplier Giffard Newton & Sons – well known for its Tuffking brand of leather firefighting boots – talked IFJ through the new aspects of the standard, to give us a flavour of what to expect from the latest generation of boots.
The first change to the standard relates to flame resistance. You thought firefighters’ boots were completely flame-resistant anyway? Think again. Under the old standard EN 345-2, flame tests were only conducted on the outsole, heel areas and the upper material. “Under the new standard,” explains Clive Newton, “the flame resistance of all external materials are tested which includes the threads, laces, zips, lace fastenings and closing mechanisms. If you had a fire boot with a plastic zip, these could melt in hot conditions causing a major failure, so these components now have to be tested.”
Next on the list of changes is one that will please anyone who, in the process of answering to an emergency, has ended up with a ripped zip in their hand while pulling up their boots. “The pull attachment strength of zips and the lateral strength of zips now have to be tested.”
Additionally, there is to be an amendment for this new Fire boot standard, to be published shortly, to allow the recently published Slip Resistant standard, EN 13287 to be incorporated in the text.
Heel energy absorption – an important property to build into any safety footwear, to avoid jarring the spine and leg joints and improve the overall comfort – has now become mandatory for firefighters’ boots.
But the main change to the standard, said Clive, is there are now three types of fire boot. “Because emergency personnel now have a choice of three levels of footwear, they have to carry out a risk assessment before choosing the best footwear for the operation.”
The three areas to look at before choosing are: risk identification; risk evaluation; and thirdly risk control. “The factors they also have to consider are the level and experience of the firefighter; their level of fitness and health; the function of the firefighter at the scene; the environmental conditions at the scene; and the specific hazards they might be facing.”
The limitations of the different types of footwear have also to be considered, for example if there is the possibility of a chemical spillage, the use of over boots or rubber boots should be considered.
On the whole, admits Clive, the sorts of boots that each firefighter will need is pretty obvious, but he points out that personnel with health and safety responsibilities will still need to carry out a risk assessment and help and guidance can be found in Annex A of the Standard.
The first option for emergency personnel is footwear for general-purpose risk, which in the context of a municipal brigade would include fighting fires in forests and fields – in essence a wildland type boot. “Type 1 footwear doesn’t have to be fitted with steel toe caps and steel mid-soles, because the footwear should be light and flexible, not too hot.”
This type of boot, says Clive, was inserted by request of Australians in the committee. “The standard started life as an ISO because it was going to be an international standard. But as it was too difficult to make it an international standard it was modified to an EN.”
The fact that there may well be some firefighters boots available with no steel toe caps and steel midsole has raised some eyebrows in this highly safety-conscious industry, but he admits that it does allow manufacturers a certain freedom to develop boots for certain markets. “We have just developed a boot for one hot country which doesn’t have a waterproof membrane. The weather is so hot that they said they didn’t mind if their feet got wet.”
However, it should be pointed out that all three types must pass a heat insulation test, to ensure that the internal temperature remains below 42ºC.
Type two of the new standard is suitable for fire and rescue operations in buildings and enclosed vehicles. “This is the closest to what is currently worn by fire brigades on a general basis.”
Finally, type three boots are for hazardous materials emergencies such as chemical spills. The choice of boots in this category is limited to all rubber or entirely moulded plastic. The only other option could be the use of chemical overboots which can be worn over the leather footwear.
Most firefighters, says Clive, will probably stick with type two boots, except perhaps where there is a high incidence of wildland firefighting. “But I cannot think of any situation where you would not want to have a steel toecap. I think this is daft.”
Another area that might give some cause for concern has been the lowering of the performance level of the sand bath test, which basically attempts to replicate situations where the firefighter is standing on a hot surface.
In this test, a boot is placed in a sand bath so the sand reaches the top of the welt of the boot – where the upper joins the sole. Under the old standard, a boot had to withstand temperatures of 250ºC for 40 minutes. Now there are three levels of performance, 150ºC for 30 minutes (H11), 250ºC for 20 minutes (H12), and 250ºC for 40 minutes (H13).
So why create lower standards of performance for essential PPE items? “It has been done,” believes Clive, “to allow other sole materials to be considered for use in footwear, such as Polyurethane (PU).” Polyurethane is a synthetic, foamed material which is made as a result of a chemical reaction which creates a polymer that is strong and durable. However, it is unclear how long PU soles would withstand higher temperatures. “Nitrile rubber is without doubt the best material for firefighters’ boots since it is tested to 300ºC. PU is used a lot in safety footwear because it is flexible and light, but it does have its limitations; it will melt at temperatures over 130ºC and you don’t want the soles melting when the guy is fighting a heath fire.” He adds that some PU’s deteriorate even in the box and usually last around three years.
Idiosyncrasies aside, some steps have been taken in the right direction. For one, there are now official criteria for the assessment of the fit-for-purpose state of footwear. “Before, a firefighter might have his boots for two or three years, and not know what to look for to see if they are OK or failing.” But not any more.As part of the standard there are now user-friendly, pictorial diagrams indicating the areas of the boot where things can go wrong and what the firefighters should be looking out for. “For example once the cleat on the sole has reached 1.5 millimetres, the boot has to be replaced. I have seen Tuffking boots last six or seven years, where parts of the sole have been worn smooth and the firefighter has not changed them because they were so comfortable. Now they will have to.”
The view from Germany
Not all manufacturers of boots have been affected by the new standard. The makers of the high quality Fire Flash range of firefighters’ boots, German-based company Haix, say their boots have complied with this latest standard since 2005.
“We have not had to make any changes to our boots,’ says Export Manager Wolfgang Plein, speaking to IFJ at the Emergency Services Show in London in October. “We have always gone for the highest quality because it makes no sense to play games with safety. Firefighters have a dangerous job and they can only do it if they are equipped in the best way possible.”
Haix’s boots – in terms of the features they contain – have been a few steps ahead of the European standard as each model has evolved. “The Fire Flash Gamma went one further from the Fire Flash by having integrated chainsaw protection, and the next model, the Fire Flash Pro, we integrated more flexibility in the ankle area and better support, to prevent sprained ankles.”
Slip-resistance is a welcome new feature for the standard, says Wolfgang; particularly in view that 30 per cent of work-related accidents are related to slips and trips. “In Germany we have a long tradition of testing for anti-slip, and we had a national standard before the EN test was devised. But we also emphasise that the feet are the body’s flexible foundation, and if you don’t have the right footwear, you could end up with back and knee problems in later life.”
Wolfgang has also some reservations about the three new types of boot available under the standard. “Yes you can do a risk assessment, and 499 times out of 500 your firefighters will be fine in level 1, but it only takes one unexpected situation which requires a higher level to lead to potential disaster.”