How to buy EMS outerwear

Here are the top five qualities to consider when purchasing outerwear

By Dan White

Outerwear is available today in a wide range of styles, certifications, and prices. You can spend from $70 to over $300 for a good EMS coat. With all the different certifications offered, it could be confusing trying to select the best coat for your staff. As fashions change, so too do EMS coat styles. Shorter waist level coats were most popular in the early years of EMS, but today the longer coat is much more popular.

Here are the top five qualities to consider when purchasing outerwear:

1. Certifications. There are two types of standards certifications for today's EMS outerwear. One is the NFPA Bloodborne Pathogen Standard and the other is the ANSI Hi-Visibility Standard. The NFPA Standard will most likely come up in the context of a fire department-based ambulance purchase. The Hi-Viz Standards, while newer, are probably even more important. We have no knowledge of anyone who ever got sick from a pathogen that went through a coat. Frankly, if a fabric is certified by ANSI as waterproof, it will probably stop blood, too. But being struck by a car causes one-fifth of all ambulance worker fatalities on the job. One of the most dangerous things we do is work on the public roadways.

I understand the reluctance of many to buy hi-visibility outwear. Many of them have little style, and tend to make us look like fat bananas. The all-yellow coats are hard to keep clean and looking good. They pick up every drop of grease or dirt like a magnet. But there have been a lot of recent developments and styling changes that are quickly making hi-visibility outerwear the only way to go.

In Europe, EMS providers have worn hi-visibility apparel for years. Everybody on the public roadways does. The big difference is that the coats worn across the pond have more variety and style. They frequently use color blocking, or darker contrasting materials with the yellow or orange safety fabric, to create a better-looking garment. Some outerwear of similar design has begun to become available here.

The one important recommendation I can make regarding ANSI certification is to insist on being provided the garments' certification compliance documents. You should be provided three different documents, which might be combined for convenience. One is the Reflective Trim certification document. The second is the Background Hi-Viz Fabric certification. The last is the ANSI design certification. To my surprise, I've seen a number of garments labeled as certified for which documentation was unavailable. Remember, labels are cheap.

2. Materials. Outerwear has greatly benefited from the rapid evolution of fabrics developed for sportswear. Shell fabrics have become more abrasion-resistant and both more wind- and water-resistant. Insulation technology has evolved warmer garments as well. Perhaps the greatest recent invention is fleece fabrics, which provide greater warmth while remaining light and flexible. The nylon and fleece combination garment first seen on the ski slopes has now become widely available in performance duty outerwear. This is the best bet for agencies in cold-weather climates. Maybe it doesn't matter so much in Florida.

In areas with high humidity, breathability will be a desired attribute. Be sure you have selected the right materials for your work climate. Comfort and function should always be top priorities.

3. Construction. Carefully examine the garment from the inside out. Remove the lining if you can. Turn the garment inside out, and look at the seams and needlework. Do the double sew lines run neatly parallel or do they look like they wander and cross? Do you see a lot of loose or broken threads? Look at the high-stress areas for signs of weak construction. Highly skilled craftsmen make the very best outerwear. It takes longer to sew a better garment, but it lasts longer.

4. Garments made in America. It will cost even more if it's made in the USA. But this is one time I need to point out the obvious. Garments made here are, more often than not, best-in-class products. They are typically made better, last longer, and usually work better. Since they are inherently more expensive than Chinese imports, the manufacturers tend to use the very best in materials. If they know it will cost a lot to make, the emphasis is on making it the very best they can. The Americans are also the first to use the latest new high-technology fabrics. While most of the garment industry has gone offshore, one important part of the industry remains here.

All the best new fabrics are invented right here by American companies. The bulk of fabrics innovation comes from the US, and is initially produced right here, too. Only after a fabric has become mainstream and is in high demand will producers later take it to offshore mills for reduced production costs. It will take a few more years after that for the copycats and clones to appear on the market. If you want state-of-the-art fabrics and excellence of workmanship, look for "USA" on the label.

5. Ensembles. Another recent trend is towards ensembles, or buying matching over-pants and coats together. It makes sense to look at your whole outfit when looking at new coats. You deserve to have your lower half as well protected as your upper half.

Picking the right outwear can be challenging and takes a lot of time. It’s the first thing the public sees of you, and reflects the professionalism of your image. If you are comfortable and warm, you can do a better job concentrating on patient care. If you are miserable, it’s often hard to think about anything else. Extra time spent carefully evaluating the wealth of new outwear products on the market today will save you a lot of money in the long run.

Any other suggestions? Anything we missed in the list above? Leave a comment below or email with your feedback.

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