When the order for a tactical callout is given, you know you could be in for a very long ordeal. Depending upon the situation, you could be just standing and waiting in your hot, heavy gear for what seems an endless number of hours while the negotiators talk a guy back to reason; you could be storming an apartment or warehouse to end a standoff; or you could be doing both.
Whatever the nature of the callout, one thing is sure—you’ll be on your feet and they need to perform. After all, your feet are as much a “tool” as the rest of your equipment.
If you have taken as much care with the selection of your boots as you have with the rest of your gear, you should be able to get through any callout in good condition. If you haven’t, the consequences can be dire not just for your feet, but for your legs and back as well.
One cop who knows this well is B.J. Moos, a patrol officer with the Kennewick (Wash.) Police Department and a member of the Benton County SWAT Team. Officer Moos recalls what happened when he wore a pair of substandard boots for SWAT duty. The uppers for Moos’ boots were 6 to 8 inches, which is recommended, but they were made like a tennis shoe. “It’s like they took a real low-priced running shoe, with no support, and added a top to it,” he says.
Moos’ boots failed miserably, and the wear experience delivered a hairline tear on one of his tendons connecting to a toe. This may have been an injury waiting to happen since, according to Moos, “We did probably seven miles of forest marching, jogging, and ‘buddy carrying’ (hauling a 200-pound fellow SWAT operator on his shoulders) for a few hundred yards.”
Interestingly enough, a majority of the stress on a SWAT operator’s feet comes from training. This is true for tactical units across the country, which is why it behooves their operators to take seriously the selection of footwear.
What to Look For
Before examining why it’s so critical to pick the right boots for your callouts and training drills, and just how to do it, consider what makes a proper functioning, long-lasting boot.
Top-grade leather is necessary for most tactical boots, since it will provide flexibility, support, fit, comfort, and overall boot durability in most situations.
A strong insole and midsole are critical for maintaining stability, cushioning, and general support. This is especially helpful for applications that require many hours of standing, running, and otherwise being on one’s feet.
You also want a rugged outsole to ensure solid grip and traction and to enhance cushioning and protection.
Fit and Comfort Factors
Tactical callouts can take operators over varying terrain; so a “stitch-down” constructed boot probably is most practical. In this type of construction, the boot upper is stitched together as well as to the insole with heavy interlacing thread, providing an extremely secure, durable attachment. Also, since the boot upper is flared out, then stitched to the insole, your foot will always rest on a wide, and thus more stable, platform. Finally, the upper/insole is then cemented to the outsole.
So many elements factor into the proper design, functionality, and performance of a boot that it’s hard for the average person to realize them as he ponders his next boot purchase. Ed Weishan, vice-president of operations for Portland-based footwear manufacturer Danner Inc., says one of the most obvious concerns, sizing, is one of the trickiest aspects of choosing the right boot for tactical applications.
“One foot is bigger than the other in most people,” Weishan explains, adding that a person’s feet change shape considerably when he or she is standing as opposed to sitting down. “When you’re on your feet all day, your feet change shape. But if you’re fitted properly to begin with, and your feet don’t rub with friction inside the boot, they do not grow as much. If your feet are wrapped the way they should be inside the boot, so that they’re part of the body, with non-movement of the heel, you do not get the swelling of the foot and you get an improvement of circulation,” he says.
Weishan also believes that a well-fit boot should not allow movement of the foot’s heel inside the boot. If there is movement of the heel as you’re walking, “it’s like walking twice,” Weishan reveals. “If you’re rubbing on the heel while walking, or you’re standing up and your heel is coming down and you’re rubbing on it again, that’s how you get blisters on your feet.
“This happens when people don’t get a boot that wraps around and stays put on your foot,” Weishan adds. By having the foot wrapped up well inside the boot, the boot remains breathable and feet stay cool. This condition, coupled with wearing a poly or nylon blend pair of socks, will increase the wearer’s time out during a tactical callout.
Finally, says Weishan, boot wearers should look for a boot that offers “lace-to-toe” construction. “This will lock in the fit and give more comfort; it goes over the ball of your foot and locks the foot in place,” he explains.
The Right Boot for the Job
Anyone looking for duty bootwear needs to think about what he wants his boot to do and where it will be used.
Consider the demands that Randy Olsberg, a tactical commander on the NIPAS Emergency Services Team, a multi-jurisdictional SWAT team representing 67 towns in the areas north and northwest of Chicago, places on his feet. Frigid temperatures (from the high teens to the low 30s) are the norm for Olsberg’s region in winter, and so a heavyweight boot is needed.
“The biggest thing that’s facing cold-weather ops is timely replacement and platooning of people in a SWAT situation when forced to be outdoors for long periods of time,” Olsberg explains. To address this challenge, boots need to keep feet dry and warm while providing mobility and flexibility. For this reason, Olsberg prefers an extremely heavy boot with 1,000 grams of Thinsulate if a tactical operator will be out on a call in frigid weather for five or more hours. He also likes a Vibram lug outsole, which provides a non-slip surface for operators working in snow and ice.
The perfect boot for SWAT operations needs to have good support, says Benton County SWAT’s Moos. And he should know. Moos has worked on numerous night surveillance operations, which required him to carry up to 50 pounds of gear (he weighs 190 pounds). “That’s some serious weight you’re putting on your feet, plus you’re walking over rocks and everything else in the pitch black,” Moos explains. Consequently, he matches his boots to his work and chooses duty footwear that offers optimal stability and durability.
Elasticity in a boot also is pivotal to a tactical operator’s performance, as he will be climbing over fences and running various distances. Steven C. Bronson, director of training for the Virginia Tactical Officers Association, says this characteristic becomes critical particularly in training “as you develop yourself so you can be prepared to respond to different calls. Whether you’re an entry guy or a breacher, or the operator carrying a shield, you find yourself doing a lot of running and bending, which involves a lot of flex motions with your feet to get into different positions,” he explains.
Bronson also supports the trend now for a lighter weight tactical boot. While tactical boots are becoming lighter, “the flexibility, durability, and comfort are still there,” he notes. “The soles are thicker, yet the weight of the boot is lighter. This combined with a stitched boot and glued soles is absolutely the way to go.”
Test Before You Buy
Dr. Cary Zinkin, a podiatrist and a member of the American Podiatric Medical Association, gives this advice to officers shopping for tactical footwear. “Inspect the boot’s arch support,” Zinkin says. “There should be ample thickness in the arch and a strong heel counter to keep the rear foot in proper position. The boot also should be flexible in the forefoot area so you can bend your toes and walk in a normal gait, yet still give protection.”
Zinkin cautions that fit is critical to maintaining strong and healthy feet under SWAT conditions. The “toe box” should have ample room for each foot to move its toes, says the podiatrist.
Finally, walk around the store with the boots you’ve just slipped on and laced up. In this way, Dr. Zinkin says, “you’ll have a much better idea of how the boots are going to wear and how they’ll feel. If a boot hurts before you buy it, it’s not going to stop hurting you once you work it in. It needs to be fairly comfortable from the start.”