Foot pain, Achilles injuries, blisters, plantar fasciitis and shin splints are common complaints in firefighters. Choosing the right boot can help prevent these ailments. After all, wasn’t it an old firefighter, Ben Franklin (writing as Poor Richard), who said, “An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure”?
Firefighting boot types
Firefighters can typically find themselves wearing one or more of the following types of boots, depending upon the types of service that they provide:
- Station boots that are worn while on duty at the fire station and on non-firefighting incidents (e.g., EMS calls) and non-emergency activities (e.g., fire inspections, pre-fire planning, or fire and life safety education programs);
- Structural firefighting boots that are part of the interior structural firefighting protective ensemble; and/or
- Wildland firefighting boots designed for use by firefighters operating in more rural wilderness areas with rough terrain.
For this discussion, we’ll focus on how to get the best fit for both station boots and wildland firefighting boots. Firefighting boots are such a large field that we’ve previously given them their own focus.
Getting a good fit
When it comes to get that boot that feels “just right,” there are several factors to consider, but the first is the fit. And key to fit is the question, how tight should a boot be?
The primary purpose of a work boot, besides merely covering the foot, is to provide support. When a boot doesn’t provide adequate cushioning, it can lead to several foot problems, including plantar fasciitis, heel spurs and even microfractures in the bones of the foot.
Wearing non-supportive footwear on hard, flat surfaces (e.g., fire station floors and apparatus bay floors) puts abnormal strain on the plantar fascia, which can lead to plantar fasciitis. Working a job that requires long hours on one’s feet serves as a precursor for foot issues. Obesity and overuse can also contribute to plantar fasciitis.
Your boot must also be adequately secured so that every foot strike on concrete, dirt or hillside puts your foot securely to the ground, giving you good traction and secure footing.
Lastly, loose boots allow your feet to move inside the boot, causing unsure footing as well as hot spots. Have you ever noticed a part of your foot that feels like its burning? That sensation is likely caused by your foot not being adequately secured inside the boot (It’s also likely to be followed by the formation of a blister if left unattended).
Your foot should have enough space to be comfortable, but not so much that you don't have the security and support you need from your footwear.
Prepping for a good boot fit
Here are a couple of things to do before you get to the boot store or to have ready when your boots arrive (If you’ve ordered them online).
- Wear the same socks that you'll be wearing while on duty to get the most accurate fit.
- If you already have a diagnosed foot condition and you wear orthotics in your everyday shoes, take these with you when you try on your boots. It’s a good practice to remove the manufacturer’s insole from any boot you try on, provided it does not damage the boot itself, because 1) the orthotic itself takes up space and 2) most orthotics are designed to be worn over a flat surface inside your shoe.
- Try on boots toward the end of the day. Trying on boots first thing in the morning when your legs and feet have been rested all night is not a good idea, as your feet and lower legs swell during the day. As such, it’s best to do your boot shopping or in-home fitting toward the end of the day.
How to check the fit when you first put the boot on
To determine the right fit, when trying on the boots, be mindful of how your foot slides into the boot – whether it feels loose or if it’s a struggle to work into the boot. Ideally, your experience will be somewhere in the middle, with some resistance but not much. Feel around the outside of the boot around the ball of your foot. Does it feel loose?
After lacing up the boot, walk around the store a bit. Do you feel your foot rubbing up against either side of the boot? If so, you might need a wider boot. Are your toes butting up against the front of the boot? If so, the boot is too small. If you have more than very slight wiggle room, then the boot may be a size too big.
Go for a walk
After you’ve got the boots on, take them for a “test drive.” Walk around the store or your home. Climb steps. Squat down. Jump up and down. Do a quick dash. Do as many of the normal things you do when wearing boots on the job.
Most of today’s work boots for firefighters, especially stations boots, are designed from the “bottom up” to perform like well-designed athletic shoes, and they should feel like that on your feet. But you must give them a chance to show you their stuff!
Take note of how your foot rides in the boot. Does it stay pretty much where it is when you lace up the boot or do you notice movement? A good boot should keep your foot firmly in place without constricting it.
The popularity of boots that combine lacing with zippers (frontal or side) must be considered to get the best fit for a boot. Movement of your foot within the boot can be managed using the lacing to adjust for the proper degree of snugness.
Some boot manufacturers offer another option to make minor adjustments in how a boot fits, width-wise – different sizes of inserts. Check with the store workers to see what options are available.
Any discussion of workplace attire wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of standards. After all, it’s important to select boots that can meet the demands of the fire service workplace.
Ensure that the boots you’re considering comply with the requirements outlined by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). OSHA Regulation 1910.136 states that employers must provide protective footwear for employees who work in areas where there is a danger of foot injuries due to falling, rolling or piercing objects and in areas where their feet are exposed to electrical hazards.
OSHA recommends American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) guidelines for protective footwear. Keep in mind that OSHA sets the guidelines but does not engage in any testing of products.
Choose your protective footwear from those that comply with ASTM Standard F2413-18: Standard Specification for Performance Requirements for Protective (Safety) Toe Cap Footwear. This standard covers the minimum requirements for the design, performance, testing and classification of protective footwear.
Footwear certified as meeting ASTM F2413-18 must first meet the requirements of Section 5.1 Impact Resistant Footwear and Section 5.2 Compression Resistant Footwear. All footwear manufactured to the ASTM specification must be marked with the specific portion of the standard with which it complies.
One boot of each pair must be clearly and legibly marked (stitched in, stamped on, pressure-sensitive label, etc.) on either the surface of the tongue, gusset, shaft or quarter lining. The letters F2413 reference the performance requirement for foot protection. The additional digits following the standard designation indicate the year of the standard to which the protective footwear complies, for example: 18 refers to 2018.
Also keep in mind the two NFPA standards that are applicable to “duty boots” worn by firefighters: NFPA 1977: Standard on Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting and NFPA 1999: Standard on Protective Clothing and Ensembles for Emergency Medical Operations.
The right boot fit goes a long way
Boots that fit are boots that work. Taking the time to ensure your new boots and your feet are made for each other can go a long way toward making your workday less tiring and helping you to avoid injury.
The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.