For firefighter feet, comfort is king
The leather versus rubber boot debate lands squarely on the side of leather
Firefighters often have to think on their feet during an emergency, but they also think about their feet. Because, frankly, are there many things worse than sore feet on the fireground?
In the debate over which boot material is superior, a pretty clear winner has emerged.
Thorogood, maker of both rubber and leather boots, offers almost twice as many models of leather structural boot as it does of rubber structural (seven and four, respectively). Its top two sellers are both leather structural boots, according to Jeff Burns, vice president Uniform/Fire Division of Weinbrenner, Thorogood's parent company.
FireRescue1 Facebook fans also overwhelmingly prefer leather: Only 7 percent of respondents said rubber was their first choice.
Deputy Fire Marshal Jon Williams of Union County, N.C., is also a Captain at Unionville Volunteer Fire Department. His preference goes further than material: He's a "huge fan" of leather Globe Magnums.
"I have a lace-up/zip set at work as fire marshal and a traditional pull-on leather for my volunteer department," Marshal Williams said, citing the comfort as his defining criterion.
"They wear like a tennis shoe," he said.
Studies have shown that leather boots help reduce physical injuries in firefighters.
A NIOSH study still in progress has suggested that because leather boots are about three pounds lighter than rubber boots, they allow more mobility in the feet, ankles, knees and hips.
It also says that in a lighter boot, the firefighter has a better sense of footing and a smaller risk of injury to lower limbs.
So why do some firefighters still choose rubber?
Some Facebook respondents said rubber boots were easier to pull on during quick-dress drills. Others liked that they were naturally waterproof, and still others said they were more durable than leather. They're also a good deal cheaper.
Thorogood's two top sellers, both of which are leather structural boots, cost up to twice as much as rubber boots, Burns said.
"About the only positive thing about rubber is that it's relatively inexpensive," Burns said, adding that it doesn't breathe well and is heavy and uncomfortable.
Some firefighters also believe that rubber boots are easier to clean when involved in a hazmat situation.
"The prevailing thought from everybody is if you get into a contaminant, you could rinse off the rubber and throw away the leather," Burns said.
But a study by W.L. Gore proved the opposite. The cellular structure of rubber actually traps hazardous materials, it said, whereas leather sheds most chemicals by just being hosed off.
Rubber boots also come with a bit of tradition. Many departments have used rubber boots since the 1930s.
Firefighter Hunter Knight of the Moody Fire Department in Birmingham, Ala., said the firefighters with longer tenure in his department at first honored tradition by sticking to rubber boots. But now they have mostly switched to leather.
And what is the basis for this? Newer leather boots are more rigid, providing a similar rigid support to rubber, Firefighter Knight said, especially for firefighters with ankle issues.
Plus Firefighter Knight believes the comfort of leather is superior.
"You don't want to be somewhere where you're supposed to concentrate on the scene but you're focused on your feet hurting," he added. "If you're more comfortable, you're more safe."
As FireRescue1's PPE columnists Jeff and Grace Stull outlined in a previous article, the important aspect of choosing between rubber and leather footwear is weigh your organization's needs and decide which characteristics are more important — weight, comfort/fit, performance, durability, contamination resistance and cost.
"Some of these characteristics can be determined by understanding other departments' experiences with specific styles of footwear and the relative service provided by the footwear," they said.
"As with any type of personal protective equipment, it is difficult to achieve 100 percent satisfaction between all firefighters. However, it is important that all firefighters be afforded proper fitting footwear that provides an acceptable level of protection without compromising their safety."