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Selecting the right boot is critical for emergency work

Function, fit, and finances should guide your decision on which shoes or boots to wear as an emergency responder

Updated January 11, 2016

The ice and snow at the end of driveway broke free just as I began to push our patient, strapped to a stair chair, across to the dry roadway next to ambulance. I cursed my cheap boots for the rest of the shift as I sloshed through hospital corridors with soggy socks like a grade schooler after the lunchtime recess.

When selecting uniform components one area that should not be overlooked is high-quality footwear. I immediately began my search for a new pair of boots using the three “F’s” of footwear – Function, Fit, and Finances.

Footwear needs to first meet the functional requirements of the EMS workplace. Employers may have requirements for boot height and construction, like a steel toe. Always understand workplace requirements before shopping. At a minimum, select footwear with good traction on a wide variety of surfaces from ice covered steps, to wet hospital floors, to dew soaked hillsides along the freeway.

Boots need to serve the dual and sometimes conflicting functions of providing comfort while walking and stability while lifting. A well-laced boot supports the ankle while lifting the cot and the sole creates a relatively flat stabilizing platform. Moments later though, you may need to walk the length of several football fields, zigzagging through a complex set of corridors, to pick up an interfacility transfer patient.

Finally, being waterproof is an essential function. For me snowstorms, melting snow, and torrential summer thunderstorms can create foot soaking obstacles on any shift of the year. Make waterproof boots a non-negotiable function essential.

I look for four main things in boot fit – the second ‘F.’ First, ease of sliding my foot into the boot. I have an odd foot shape and use orthotics which complicates insertion. Next I want to make sure there are no gaps between my foot and the bed of the boot. The toe box should be spacious and allow my toes to rest in a natural mid-range position without any pressure on my toes against the toe of boot. I also don’t want a cramped toe box to unnaturally curl my toes. Finally, when the boots are laced, my heel needs to be secure. Any small movements in my heel while walking lead to friction which leads to hot spots and blisters.

My final ‘F’ is finances. First find out if your employer includes boots in an annual uniform reimbursement. If yes, they may offer preferred pricing on specific manufactures and models through a purchasing program with a rep or uniform supplier.

When considering the cost of boot calculate the costs over the lifespan of the boot. A $75 pair of boots may only last me a year. A $150 pair may last two or more years. If I can afford the initial cost I always tend towards selecting the highest quality boot available.

It is usually easy to find boots that meet two out of the three criteria. My first pair of EMS boots came from a big box chain store. They had the function requirements I needed for working in the climate extremes of Wisconsin. The price was great. Unfortunately, they never fit well and I had to replace them well before they wore out because I could no longer tolerate the fit. I have recently switched to a new boot with an excellent fit and outstanding functionality, but the price was four times what I paid for the previous pair. Hopefully my new boots will give me the all-day protection I need for several years.

What are your tips for purchasing footwear? How often do you replace your boots? Do you prefer full laces or side-zippers?

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.