Changes in Footwear Technology Drive New Boot Designs

By Alan M. Petrillo

The athletic industry and military services have influenced the design of structural firefighting boots, with boot manufacturers drawing heavily from both industries to make boots that fit better, are more comfortable for long periods of use, yet still protect the firefighter from heat and other hazards.

Athletic Designs

Haley Fudge, Lion’s director of marketing, says that athletics influenced the Lock-Fit Ankle Support system in the company’s Marshall pull-on leather structural firefighting boots and its Commander leather zip-lace boots. “Our boot manufacturer, STC Footwear, Montreal, Canada, cut its teeth on ice hockey skate technology,” Fudge says. “They know how important the padding and the fit around the ankle and heel can be. Our Lock-Fit system comes from that hockey technology.”

Teresa Lawson, product manager for gloves and boots at Honeywell First Responder Products, says the athletic industry impacted changes made in its PRO series leather pull-on and lace-up boots and Ranger series rubber pull-on boots. “Firefighters want immediate comfort as soon as they put their feet in their boots,” Lawson says, “but they also want light weight and durability.” She says Honeywell has drawn from athletics elements to make a sleeker, performance-driven boot that’s engineered for comfort, safety, and control.

Budd Lake (NJ) Fire Department firefighters mop up at a structure fire
Budd Lake (NJ) Fire Department firefighters mop up at a structure fire
while wearing Fire-Dex FDXL-100 red leather structural firefighting
boots. (Photo courtesy of Fire-Dex.)

Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Manufacturing Co., says Globe first entered the firefighting boot business seven years ago with an effort to make boots more flexible, fit better, and still give the firefighter a stable and solid platform from which to work. He says Globe took elements from athletic footwear and incorporated them into structural firefighting boots “that are much more cushioned and contoured, so they were very much like wearing a pair of athletic shoes.”

Globe’s latest structural firefighting boot is the Supralite 14-inch pull-on, Mordecai says, that incorporates a Heelport internal fit system to hold the heel securely so it won’t slip while still cushioning the ankle and an individually molded heel counter for each boot size. The boots also have a composite shank that’s lighter than steel, don’t transmit heat or cold and spring back to shape better, as well as have composite puncture protection that’s more flexible than steel and a composite safety toe cap.

Mordecai notes that the stitched welt construction that is a hallmark of military boots is stiff by design and flat. “We wanted a construction that moved like feet move where a foot can flex 50 degrees,” he says. “If the boot doesn’t flex, it will make the heel lift and not fit well.”

Lion's Lock-Fit Ankle Support system in its Marshall pull-on leather structural firefighting boots
The design of Lion’s Lock-Fit Ankle
Support system in its Marshall pull-on
leather structural firefighting boots was
influenced by athletics, specifically ice
hockey skate technology. (Photo courtesy
of Lion.)

Rob Mills, president of Black Diamond Boots, says that today’s structural firefighters, like construction workers and warehouse employees, have been brought up wearing athletic footwear that has been engineered out of new materials. “Their components and designs are to be lighter and more flexible but still have the same durable properties as older, stiffer products,” Mills observes.

For Black Diamond’s X2 leather firefighter boot, Mills says his company engineered athletic flexibility and fit out of the box. “We use a combination of materials to achieve weight reduction,” he says. “Leather, Kevlar®, and Nomex® are used for the upper materials, which is inspired by the military, and the footbed is engineered with Ortholite for support, comfort, and shock absorption, inspired by athletic footwear.”

Black Diamond's X2 leather structural firefighting boots
Black Diamond’s X2 leather structural firefighting boots, engineered to
have athletic flexibility and fit straight out of the box, are inspired by
both military boots and athletic footwear. (Photo courtesy of Black

Other Design Sources

Military boot designs and composition also have affected Lion brand footwear, Fudge notes. “The comfort, durability, and innovative fabrics and fiber technology come from the military,” Fudge points out, “and also how the boot is welted to give it more flexibility but still withstand difficult environments.”

Honeywell also moved away from the traditional sewn-on Goodyear welted sole and went to a cemented sole like those used on military boots, as well as using full-grain military AB leather for the boot’s outer sheath.

Karen Lehtonen, vice president for innovation and product management at Lion, says her company has been drawing inspiration from the athletics, military, and even the mining markets. “Miners are on their feet all day long and need physical protection similar to firefighters,” Lehtonen says. “They also need the comfort aspect because they wear boots for extended periods of time and want them to have the right fit and be comfortable. They do a lot of climbing and crawling like firefighters and don’t want tripping hazards.”

Honeywell's PRO series leather pull-on structural firefighting boots
Honeywell’s PRO series leather pull-on
structural firefighting boots draw from
athletic elements for their design that’s
engineered for comfort, safety, and
control. (Photo courtesy of Honeywell
First Responder Products.)

Abby Lehman Buzon, assistant communications manager for Fire-Dex, says her company embarked on a market research campaign designed at determining the most important “must haves” when it comes to structural fire boots.

“The research spoke loud and clear,” Buzon says. “Fire-Dex responded with the recent launch of our FDXL-50 Grey leather boot, which targets the need for lighter weight, comfortable, and durable boots that won’t blow the budget.” Buzon says the new boot delivers 15 percent lighter weight than its closest competitor, quality Goodyear welt construction, Lenzi and Vibram components, and a dual density foam insert.

Haix North America does not draw from the athletic industry. Christian Jaehrling, national sales director for Haix North America, says, “Using athletic type footwear is not a good idea, and most changes haven’t come from that area, which is a different direction than protective footwear.”

Jaehrling points out that Haix uses a different construction method in its firefighting boots. “When we put the Crosstech liner in the boot, we pull the liner around the last and then cement the sole and injection-mold a foam-like material under high pressure in the bottom of the shoe as an insulator and cushioner,” he says. “We developed this technique specifically for our Fire Hunter Xtreme and Fire Hero boots.”

He adds that the cementing is an involved process that roughs up the leather and rubber compound material of the sole so the pores stick up and can be permanently bonded. “The foam seals every crevice, and there are no air pockets between the materials because of the high pressure used,” Jaehrling says. “The foam also seals and waterproofs the bottom, provides cushioning, and acts as an insulator.”

Haix's Fire Hunter Xtreme structural firefighting boots
Haix’s Fire Hunter Xtreme structural firefighting boots mold a foam-like material under high pressure into the bottom of the boot to insulate, waterproof, and cushion the firefighter’s feet. (Photo courtesy of Haix.)

On the Horizon

Lawson sees firefighting boots changing in the future to mirror the changing roles of firefighters. “When more than 70 percent of a firefighter’s job is not fire-focused, he needs a boot he can wear in the station, on an emergency medical services (EMS) run, and also do firefighting if the need arises,” Lawson says. “With shrinking budgets, it makes sense for that type of boot, and we see Honeywell moving in that direction.”

Jaehrling says that manufacturers continue to focus on the comfort aspect of leather firefighting boots as well as better fit and surer gripping. “Those are clear trends,” he points out, predicting the demise of rubber firefighting boots in the future. “Rubber boots, in our opinion, are a thing of the past,” he says. “It’s old technology and we think we will see them go away.”

However, Mills warns that while light weight is good, structural firefighting boots still need a great deal of support and comfort in the product. “Between the NFPA standards and the nature of where a structural firefighting boot is worn, the boots can only be so light without compromising their structural integrity,” Mills says. “The challenge is to use materials to lighten the product, provide for shock absorption and flexibility, but still maintain the integrity and durability of the boot.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.

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