SNEWS Qs: Wolverine's Yahn Lebo talks about outdoor workers' needs

Wolverine's Yahn Lebo talks needs of outdoor workers – sturdier footwear and apparel – and how Wolverine is delivering.
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As many of us sit in air-conditioned offices, hundreds of people are being evacuated from their homes and firefighters are desperately trying to contain several wildfires burning all over our home state — Colorado.

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Volunteer fire fighters represent nearly 70 percent of America’s fire service, according to figures from the National Volunteer Fire Council, and chances are some of those extraordinary folks with regular day jobs already are your customers. They likely are looking for products designed just for them from brands they trust.

Wolverine is answering that call with offerings in its Spring 2014 line that target firefighters and emergency rescue teams.

SNEWS recently chatted with Yahn Lebo, Wolverine’s outdoor product line manager, about the new products, what inspired them and why outdoor workers need access to quality products.

Tell our readers why it makes sense for Wolverine to reach out to firefighters and emergency rescue teams.
From farming and building houses to railroad construction, Wolverine boots were designed to work outside from the time the company was founded in 1883. The outdoors is part of Wolverine’s legacy, and we are still building on that heritage by crafting products for people who make their living outdoors today.

What are some of the new products you're offering these folks for Spring '14?
Two new products that Wolverine is introducing for Spring '14 include the Firestomper Boot, which is designed for wildland firefighting, and the Alert, which is designed for volunteer search and rescue groups, specifically those who work with K9 units.

Tell us about the people who inspired these products.
The people who inspired these products are a part of Wolverine’s Guardian Project. Wolverine started the Guardian Project to connect with professionals in the outdoors, including wildland firefighters, search and rescue organizations, forest rangers, hunting guides and wildlife biologists, to gain insight on their product needs and valuable feedback from product field-testing. These Guardians are a driven and determined group who have answered the call of the outdoors full-time. They are shepherds and stewards, creating, maintaining, protecting, educating and guiding so that others can continue to explore and enjoy.

The Firestomper is designed for wildland firefighting, and inspired by Guardian Ambassadors like Garth Levin (photo above). The Alert is designed for search and rescue work, and is inspired by volunteer search and rescue teams who often spend hours each day training with their canine team members so they can be ready whenever a search and rescue situation occurs. Unsung heroes of the outdoors, these people strive to make the outdoors a safe place and we strive to provide the footwear that allows them to get the job done.

How have these products been tested and received?
Part of the design process for these boots was taking components and features from products in our core boot line and [repurposing] them for similar applications, as well as enhancing them with Guardian insights that we’ve gleaned from field testing. This results in boots that have tried and true components along with specific features that the particular target audience is looking for in their footwear.

What are the key features of these products?
A key feature of the Firestomper is the Nomex panels in the upper. Nomex is a fire-retardant material that reduces weight and enhances comfort because it breaks in easily. When fighting a fire for hours on end, weight and comfort are incredibly important.

The key features of the Alert are its lightweight, highly breathable and quick-drying upper along with a Vibram outsole. Search and rescue teams often cross a wide range of terrain including rivers due to the urgency of the work, so it’s important that if the shoes are completely submerged, they dry quickly, and dependable traction is a must.

With the last few fire seasons being as devastating as they've been, what's are the needs of people fighting them?
There are approximately 14 active wildfires burning right now, and we’re only at the beginning of the fire season. Wildland firefighters need specific features in their boots, which are distinctly different from those for structural firefighting. As this season continues, people doing this type of work will continue to need boots that can stand up to such a demanding job day after day.

What are the opportunities for specialty outdoor retailers when it comes to targeting folks who work on trails or fight fires?
People who earn a living outdoors look to the outdoor industry to supply many of the products that meet their needs. A lot of this is driven by durability and lightness of weight; protective or safety features (outside of climbing) have not always been a significant part of the mix. There is overlap between what the recreational consumer and the professional consumer want in their footwear and apparel. Additionally, with many government programs, such as maintenance in national parks, being cut, more outdoor volunteers will be needed to help provide access to wild places. With these changes will come a need for more protective footwear and apparel.

What other opportunities are there for outdoor brands to reach this group of folks?
Being a lifestyle brand is important. We hear so often from our retailers that although our apparel is designed for work, it also crosses over to the outdoors.

What groups are you looking to target in the future?
We are also targeting the Legions, the weekend warriors who volunteer their time to building trails and hiking. They don’t necessarily earn their living outdoors, but they have a passion for it. As more people become interested in the outdoors, this group will become increasingly important to helping maintain trails, aiding in backcountry search and rescue efforts and assisting with in wildlife management needs. They have some similar needs as the guardians when it comes to footwear, but not necessarily at the same industrial level, so the products features are different.

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