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Why EMS personnel need an all-the-time personal first aid kit

Carry a small personal aid kit with you at all times to treat the aches, cuts and scrapes you are most likely to experience yourself or need to treat in friends and family


Photo/Dave Konig

Despite the tragic rise in active shooter incidents in the United States to 20 or more incidents per year, the majority of us will not respond to one as an EMS professional or experience one as a bystander. Regardless, should you want to be prepared for that unlikely event, carrying an off-duty bailout bag with chest seals and hemostatic dressings — as explained by EMS1 columnist Dan Limmer — is fine advice. Dan’s sensible recommendations on situational awareness and safety precautions are, however, likely more practical takeaways.

In many 911 systems, the majority of call types are medical. Trauma calls are just a small portion of the call volume. If you have ever worked at a mass gathering sporting event or music festival, you know you are much more likely to treat aches and minor wounds than major trauma. You are also much more likely to distribute over-the-counter pain relievers, Band-Aids and ice packs than you are to use a fistful of tourniquets. The same is true during the course of our everyday, even our off-duty days. Most self-care is for minor injuries and most requests from friends and family for first aid are for strains, sprains, bruises, cuts and scrapes.

Chase Jarvis, a professional photographer and iPhone photography expert, wrote “The Best Camera Is the One That’s With You.” I agree and this point of view happens to apply both to photography and first aid kits. The best personal first aid kit is the one with you.

3 personal first aid kit attributes

I am in no way advocating you carry a full trauma kit strapped to your back everywhere you go. While it’s advisable to keep a more extensive kit or bail-out bag in your vehicle, our vehicles aren’t always easily accessible when the need arises. I do recommend you have a small, stocked personal first aid kit on you at all times to meet the needs you are most likely to encounter.

The three attributes I look for in an individual first aid kit are:

1. Portability

A personal first aid kit needs to fit in a pocket comfortably and easily pass through a TSA screening checkpoint.

2. Accessibility

The kit’s contents need to be readily accessible, but also protected from the elements I may encounter during the course of my day.

3. Utility

The contents of the kit need to be useful on at least a weekly, if not daily basis. If I haven’t needed anything from the kit in a week, then it’s time to reassess the contents and modify them as needed.

Personal first aid kits can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are a number of pre-constructed and stocked options available through most pharmacies and online marketplaces. Although these can be quick and easy solutions, putting together your own is easy, fun and economical. Doing this also allows you the freedom of choosing the container and gives you a more intimate knowledge of the contents. Simply purchasing a pre-packaged kit doesn’t necessarily provide the same level of familiarity.

Personal first aid kit container options

When constructing your personal first aid kit, your choice of container type is as important as what the contents are. Here are a few options:

1. Mint tin

These popular metallic containers can be found in any convenience store. One of the most common types, a hinged metal box, is well suited for continuous usage. Use a small plastic bag to ensure the contents are protected from water and dirt that may contaminate or damage the supplies. While covering the container in contact paper or electrical tape will help protect the outside — and allow you the opportunity to relabel it easily — it will occasionally fall short of protecting the contents inside.

2. Soup container

If you have ever ordered a small soup from a take-out restaurant or had it delivered, chances are you have come across these small pint-sized (or smaller) plastic containers. These containers are ideal for carrying around your personal first aid contents. Thanks largely to their design to keep liquids in, it also keeps liquid — like rain or snow — out.

3. Pouch

There are thousands of pouches, varying in both size and design. Some come with a strap already attached, commonly called a fanny pack, or loops to attach the pouch to your belt. The material can be water-resistant, but there are still usually pourous areas where zippers or Velcro are located, potentially allowing the contents to become wet if exposed to the elements.

Personal first aid kit contents

Statistically speaking, the three most common requests at a mass gathering are for:

1. Adhesive bandages
2. Over-the-counter pain relief medication
3. Cotton balls

Use that information as your starting point for determining the best first aid items to carry on a daily basis in your individual kit. My recommended items include, in order of likely use:

  • Adhesive bandages (5)
  • Triple A antibiotic ointment (3)
  • Single packet over-the-counter aspirin-free pain relief (2)
  • Small cotton balls (2)
  • 2"x2" non-stick gauze pads (5)
  • 1" medical tape
  • Triangle bandages (2)
  • Tourniquet

Absent from my list is roller gauze. The roller gauze functionality is easily substituted using either the medical tape or a triangle bandage, making its inclusion redundant considering space constraints.

Another item I’ve left out, which may cause you to raise your eyebrows, is the pocket face mask/shield for providing ventilations during cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The promotion of hands-only CPR by the American Heart Association and the proliferation of public access AEDs reduces the need for such a barrier device, especially where space is limited. Items we would consider indispensable as prehospital care providers while working on an ambulance are not as vital for an individual first aid kit.

Community outreach

Constructing individual first aid kits is something that, after some experimentation and field-testing, can be rolled out to others through community outreach programs. Having students construct their own kits during a first aid class can be an effective aid in learning the supplies and how to properly use them in an emergency. Holding an open house at your agency with an individual first aid kit construction station could also unearth potential EMS providers in your community.

Dave is a New York City based EMS provider working in the field since 1994. He has worked in the private sector, as a 911 provider, and as a volunteer. Since 2005 he has been involved in Social Media aspects through the current major services as well as some defunct ones. He blogs about EMS, Social Media, and Event Medical Services at and maintains for other writings including updates on the books he authors.