Time to re-boot your boys?
Published: 01 January, 2006
Firefighter's boots have come a long way since the days of the unisex rubber Wellies - and with new European standards about to come into force, it may be that fire trucks will need a separate trailer just to carry all the new safety footwear!
Without wishing to sound like some kind of boot fetishist, there is something about getting a new pair of heavy duty boots that is deeply gratifying. Maybe it’s the not-so-shiny black leather, which grunts sheer macho functionality. Maybe it’s the foreknowledge that this boot is going to play a crucial part in future life or death rescue operations.
Whatever it is, a firefighter’s boot is special – so how did the boot develop over the years, and what is available from some of the world’s most established manufacturers?
Clive Newton is managing director of UK company Giffard Newton & Sons Ltd – a company that has been in business since 1854, and which was recently sold to MK Associates (Carlton Shoes). The company introduced the first leather firefighter’s boot in 1985, at a time when firefighters wore rubber Wellington boots. “These were heavy and uncomfortable, causing blisters.
We produced a leather alternative as a bit of an experiment, and I took it to a fire exhibition to see what would happen. We were inundated with firefighters who were very interested, so we realised we were on to something. It took some years until we got our first order because no brigade would buy until it had been trialled for at least two years. But gradually they switched over and today we hold about 40% of the firefighters’ market in the UK.” The company is actively expanding its market overseas and looking for partners with whom to work.
The original Tuffking fire boots were very different to today’s boot, with no scuff cap and no waterproof membrane, but over the years, waterproof membranes, cut resistance, scuff caps, etc.,have been added to improve comfort and protection.
The next big development for Giffard Newton – and fire boots in general – has been the introduction of women’s firefighting boots, launched only 18 months ago as a response to the UK government’s drive to encourage women to join the service. As far as accommodating women’s feet is concerned, it would appear that there are more differences between the sexes than would meet the eye, explains Clive. “A woman’s foot and leg measurement is vastly different to a man’s.
The boots must accommodate the smaller heel, calf, ankle and foot width measures, while retaining the same design as the male boot. If you are trying to fit a female firefighter with a man’s boot, she is going to be uncomfortable and the boot is not going to fit properly.” And that, of course, has health and safety implications.
The women’s fire boots were trialled successfully at several brigades before coming onto the market.
Technical fire officers in Europe should be aware that in the next year or so, a new standard for firefighter’s boots may come into operation, PR EN 15090. Giffard Newton’s Technical Director is part of the technical committee discussing the new standard, and he reveals that it will cover three types of footwear: for general purpose, e.g. forest fires, grass land (type 1); structural fire fighting, RTA’s (type 2); and hazardous chemicals (type 3). ‘There will also be three types of contact heat test available, from HI1 which is boot in a sand bath at 170 C for 30 minutes, to HI3 which is 250 C for 40 minutes.”
The introduction of the new standard will offerbrigades multi choice regarding their fire boot options, Clive reports.
“Risk assessment will be critical, but you have to bear in mind that every European country is represented on this committee, and each has a different idea of what a boot should be. The new standard is trying to accommodate all comments and thoughts.”
In the unlikely situation that fire brigades should go down the route of issuing each officer with a full set of boots, for every eventuality, it may be that fire trucks will require a separate trailer full of footwear!
Spanish leather is world-famous so perhaps it is not surprising that one of the biggest manufacturers of firefighters’ boots should come from the Rioja area of Spain. Fal Seguridad started in this market in 1992, with a project supported by the Spanish government for Madrid’s firefighters.
Thirteen years on, Fal is a Goretex licencee (the first Spanish company to become one), with distributors throughout the Middle East and Europe.
Fal now has a strong research and development laboratory with the same equipment as a testing house, which means the company knows its products will pass any certification required for each market, prior to seeking official certification. The results are boots such as the firefighting boot Dragon, packed full of features such as Goretex membrane with Cambrelle; perforated polyethylene insole; antistatic Bontex insole; composite toe cap; inner insole of anatomic recovered black Cambrelle; Kevlar insole with perforation protection; and outside rubber toe protector. “Spain is a country with a high level of technology,” says sales director Manuel Perez-Sevilla, “and we are competing in a high tech industry with manufacturers in Germany and Italy. The requirement of firefighters for high performance and high comfort boots means we use the best materials available in the world. We have a reputation for high quality.”
The 170-strong company, explains Manuel, designs new boots according to the demands of the market, such as the 606721 models which complies with the UK Home Office’s A30 requirements.
Fal also uses its expertise in the manufacture of shoes for the outdoor market. “We have turned some of our hiking boots into wildland firefighting boots, where the demand is for flexible footwear which adjusts better to the shape of the foot, and without toe caps and mid soles – it is a lot of kilometres that firefighters have to walk in those situations.”
A company that likes to mix a bit of philosophy with its manufacturing know-how is Germany company Haix. Visit Haix’s website, and you’ll find a philosophy section, with a quote by Walter Rathenau. “Complaints about the ferocity of competition are in reality merely complaints about the lack of ideas!” Ideas – and ambition – are not something that Haix is short of.
This export-hungry manufacturer is doing what very few – if any – companies have succeeded in doing: attempting to supply their optimum quality fire boots in the US.
In 2003, Haix set up a head office and distribution centre in Lexington, Kentucky, from which to support US fire brigades and help reach the company’s target of 50 per cent exports.
According to Wolfgang Plein, sales manager, northern Europe, firefighting boot standards are only the first building block. “For us, fulfilling a standard is not a problem – but the challenge is technology performance and high quality. Firefighters are in the situation that they have to protect themselves but also have the responsibility to protect others, and for that you need a good boot because a boot is the basis of your foundation.”
The idea that a boot is a boot is a boot is anathema to the Haix way of thinking – while achieving maximum functionality is not. Take the Fire Flash Pro for instance. Not unlike other Haix boots, this one has five – yes, five – in-house developed features, such as:
The Haix Climate system, a combination of airpermeable materials and design which allows the natural pumping movement of the walking foot to push vapour through air holes in the upper leg. The Haix Micro Soft Light System consists of PU (polyurethane) foam being injected into the inner part of the sole, to improve shock absorbency and insulation against heat or cold.
And the Haix Lacing System (also patented), which allows fast donning of boots through a zipper. Also, the laces run along the outside of the boot, but cross on the inside, to reduce the risk of laces being caught by – for example – debris or wreckage.
It is no wonder then that Haix welcomes competition. “To have a competitor in the marketplace is a challenge and it means that a company never sleeps. When we show our boots to firefighters – especially the Fire Flash – they are surprised that so much functionality and quality can be brought together in one boot,” says Wolfgang.
While leather has overtaken rubber when it comes to structural firefighting, rubber boots are still a valued part of standard kit when it comes to chemical spills: and here the brand name Century, by Dumfries-based (Scotland) Hunter Rubber, is probably one of the most well known in the world.
“Generally rubber wellingtons are worn when there are contaminants, such as a chemical incident or an RTA and there is diesel or petrol,” says sales director Phil Joy. Since the time that rubber boots have felt the competition from leather alternatives, Hunter Rubber has not stood still, and today’s Century 4000 range boasts a number of changes.
The biggest, admits Phil, has been the complete redesign of the shape of the boot.
“We have got to the stage now where the boot is orthopaedically built with a new last design that fits to the leg. We have also added a fleece/neoprene lining for heat and cold insulation to our Firefighter Ultima boot, and both this model and the Century 4000 now have a heel energy absorber.” Today’s Wellington,in other words, has nothing in common with yesterday’s rubber boot.
“We are supplying the majority of UK brigades as well as the Hong Kong fire brigade. We are also getting ready to launch in the US with both a rubber and a leather version.”
Rubber, believes Phil, is coming back into fashion. “Some PPE buyers are now wanting to reexamine rubber as a possibility because leather is not always more comfortable. Also, many leather boots tend to crack with constant wetting and drying, while a rubber boot may last up to five years.”
But what is really getting Phil excited at the moment, is the market for rubber wading boots for water rescue situations. “I think safety waders is something that is going to be big. We have had a number of incidents in this year, and flooding is on the increase as are our sales of this item.”