A little over 5 years ago, former Fire Chief and president/owner of HAIX—Ewald Haimerl—took on a project that had “hold my beer” written all over it. The result? A boot that must be worn to be believed.
Webster “Web” Marshall—Fire Department Lieutenant and PPE & Technology Research Coordinator for the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation—had approached several fire-industry manufacturers about making a better bunker boot. A boot that addressed long-standing concerns with overall firefighter health. A boot that was fit for tactical athletes. There were no takers.
Ewald and Web met up at Firehouse Expo in 2018, and the topic was making a better boot. Both shared a passion for their fellow firefighters and their overall health; brand allegiance is secondary to that. Web approached other boot manufacturers, but only Ewald and HAIX were willing to work with him; developing a fire service boot that would improve overall health and longevity of the wearer and reduce exposure to harmful contaminants.
The First Prototype
Initially, I was impressed that Web could recall the exact date he travelled to Lexington and saw the first prototype for the Fire Eagle Xtreme. But as the conversation progressed, I realized he wasn’t likely to forget that moment. In fact, he still has the plane ticket. It was the beginning of a 5-year process; with 5 iterations of the boot, and dozens of weartesters.
Their 1-hour meeting quickly turned into 3 hours as they discussed the first prototype. Shortly after their initial conversation Ewald had produced a boot that had exceptional flexibility in the ankle region. This reduced excess activation of the lower leg until that activation was needed. It had laces that created unique tension zones, allowing for more space to make the turn, and the ability to tighten up the boot around the ankle and calf. It was a boot that not only felt like a tennis shoe, but it also FUNCTIONED like a tennis shoe; if tennis shoes were certified fire-resistant. Web made some suggestions to increase the stability of the footbed. Ewald agreed, and plans were made to start production of prototypes to begin weartesting in March 2019.
A Promise is a Promise
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Commitment is what transforms a promise into a reality.” HAIX produced several versions of the Fire Eagle Xtreme over the course of 5 years; the current version is available for purchase. These versions were weartested over the course of 3½ years. Feedback was continuous between prototypes. HAIX had committed to the development of this boot, and prototype production never slowed, even in the face of Ewald’s untimely death and the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s impossible to quantify passion. Commitment matters, and a promise is a promise. HAIX stayed the course on a project that Ewald thought so highly of, despite these difficulties.
When the boot was first presented to various weartesters, the immediate feedback related to its “weird” appearance. The boot has lots of yellow. It has laces. It looks tall. Despite that input, HAIX and Web learned to let the boot speak for itself. Show don’t tell. The instructions became simple: wear it, keep an open mind, no feedback for at least a week, and try to destroy it.
Many of the weartesters were Fire Instructors; men and women on their feet all day and in all sorts of teaching situations. Their feedback was similar—and at the end of the feedback cycle, the sentiment was often “I don't want to wear anything else”.
One of those instructors leads training for search and rescue missions. He took the boot on a training mission in Talullah Gorge, a 1,000-foot-deep canyon in Georgia. Though this boot isn’t engineered as a hiking boot, the functionality of the increased ankle flexion, metatarsal protection, fire-resistance, and lacing system meant that it could effectively be used at that time, on that search and rescue exercise. That wearer could attest to the technology in the footbed and lower leg mobility that these boots provided.
Unintended Side Effects
Firefighters know that seconds matter when a life is on the line. Web has been a paid firefighter since 2001 and still volunteers in his hometown. When addressing the skeptics, Web said he often challenged potential weartesters to a quick-dress competition. (Remember “show, don’t tell”?)
And he always won.
Web explained that though he had been a firefighter for over 20 years, he spent time practicing with this new boot, and that practice made perfect. The new technology offered by this boot pushed him to improve his own quick-dress skills. If seconds meant life, he was now not only more protected, but could better protect those in his community. He became better, and we are all better for it.
Why challenge the status quo? Why question bunker boots that have been made a certain way for so long? Why care? Aren’t the fire industry’s current offerings good enough?
Web and Cindy agree.
Cindy Ell, who founded the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation in 2004, has been in the background throughout this entire prototyping and weartesting process. Happily, I might add. As a retired firefighter with countless industry connections and an equally endless amount of acquired knowledge about the need for wellness in firefighters, Cindy frequently chimed in during the conversation with Web about the development of a better bunker boot. She stated firefighters often care too little about their own well-being. “We are here to remind them of their worth and the value of their own health. So often they become a loss to themselves, their communities, and their families.” These men and women—these tactical athletes—train rigorously to save lives, only to put on loose fitting, heavy boots that set them back instead of moving them forward with less pain, fatigue, and greater protection.
The goal of the Fire Fighter Cancer Foundation has always been to push the industry to follow science, and create better training, programming, and PPE to address total worker health. As Web said, “Just one issue can become the chink in the armor; then it’s easy access for everything else.” Cindy agreed. “We need the industry’s best in every niche—from boots to helmets and everything in between—because our lives depend on it.”
Is the Industry Ready?
This was the question in the forefront of the mind of Ewald, Web, and the others around the table at the beginning of this journey. But after years of research, development and feedback from firefighters willing to step away from tradition, the critical question has become “Can the industry afford to wait?”