How to buy fire bags and cases

By Jim Sideras and Dan White

Bags and cases come in a variety of shapes and sizes for firefighters and different designs serve a range of purchases. But there are a range of basic considerations to ensure the purchase of your next meets your needs.

Consider the Context
You must examine each new bag purchase in the context of how everything else is carried. The idea is to balance loads so that “no hand carries more than another." If you can more equally balance what gets carried in more evenly you will have a lot less fatigue and I believe reduced injuries. This is not always possible; often one item will outweigh the rest.

Try Beforehand Where Possible
It is highly recommended you try to get a sample and put your equipment in the bag. Stock it just as you plan to use it, and see how everything lays out. Then think about how you use these items. What works best is to look at two specific but very different considerations:

  • Are the things you use the most often easily accessible?
  • Are the things you want instantly when you do need them only one zipper-pull away?

Look at the Details
Look carefully at the side and corner seams for signs of irregularity or puckering. A bag that isn’t cut right won’t go together right. Look at the handle attachments and shoulder strap mounts. Will they hold up to the weight you plan to load in it? Look at the inside of the bag where the main zipper attaches.

Is it single or double stitched, and how straight do the sew lines run? This is one spot on most bags where shoddy construction will be revealed most easily, particularly around the corners. Check the impact liner. Is it cheap open cell foam they goes “pop” between your fingers and soon stops providing protection? Or is it high-density foam that will take years of abuse?

Is the bottom double-layered or reinforced in some manner? This is a primary wear point on many kits. It should also be constructed to resist fluid penetration.

Cleaning Needs
The ability to decontaminate equipment can often include the bags or cases used to carry supplies. Hard cases can be easily cleaned. If they have foam liners, the liners may need to be replaced or cleaned to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Bags can be more of a challenge to clean, and if done improperly can leave unsightly stains on the outside of bags. There are some manufacturers who use a coated nylon material that makes cleaning the bags easier. This does add some cost to the bag.

Visibility Needs
Bags or cases should have reflective trim, and as much of it as possible. This will increase the visibility of personnel as well as the bag or case. Reflective trim can be added to cases. Trim that meets DOT standards offer a much higher level of reflective properties than standard reflective trim.

Member Feedback
Talk to the people who will be carrying either the bags or cases. Their insights can be of great benefit. They have likely thought through all of the issues, and may also suggest solutions that would be useful for your organization.

EMS Bags
There are two basic designs for EMS soft-side bags and cases. They can be constructed of either a nylon type of material or of hard plastic.

There are literally hundreds of bag designs constructed of nylon-type material.

• These bags can be made for any purpose. There are bags designed for oxygen bottles, trauma, drugs, backpacks and bags that can pressurize IV bags.
• Bags are lighter in weight.
• Bags are easy to carry.
• There can be color codes for various uses — airway bags can be green, trauma red, pediatrics orange, etc.
• Usually there is plenty of reflective trim.

• Bags can be difficult to decontaminate.
• Depending on color, they can be difficult to keep clean.
• Bags are not as secure for locking medications.
• Bags are easy to over-stuff with “extra” equipment.
• If used in dusty climates, the dust can filter into the bags.

Cases are usually constructed from hard plastic.

• These cases can be incredibly durable and can hold up to very harsh environments.
• Depending on the manufacturer, the cases can be waterproof and dustproof.
• Cases can be set up to be highly compartmentalized. This can ensure items are in their exact place, such as drugs. This can help ensure standardization across units.
• Many cases are designed to be secured and can be locked.
• The "tackle box" design can allow all the contents to be quickly viewed.

• The hard cases are heavier than soft side bags.
• Hard cases normally do not have shoulder straps, so a person is limited to what they can carry.
• Cases can take up more space in vehicles.
• Cases often do not have reflective striping.

Deployment of EMS Bags
An important consideration when purchasing bags is to determine what equipment will need to be carried to the patient. This can normally require more than one bag or case. If a crew of two people is expected to carry a certain amount of gear to the patient, hard cases may prove to be difficult to deploy easily. Hard cases will increase the work load to the providers since they weigh more than a bag carrying the similar equipment. Soft side bags are often available as backpacks, which can be valuable for providers to carry equipment during events or in stadiums.

If the gear will be used in current conditions in rough terrain or where it will be exposed to water spray, such as with shipboard operations, a waterproof case would be extremely useful. Also, hard cases may make the task of daily inventory of medications easier, since there is the ability to easily make compartments for each drug. This may be useful in larger organizations where crews may not work daily on the same rigs. .


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

Jim Sideras is a division chief for Sioux Falls, S.D., Fire Rescue. He is a 23-year veteran of SFFR and a registered nurse with a masters of science degree in nursing as a clinical nurse specialist. Jim received the Harvard University Fire Executive Fellowship, and has also completed a human resources program at Cornell University. He is currently in the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program, and has spoken at several national conferences on emergency medical topics.  Dan White, EMT-P, is the director of Corporate Planning & Product Development for AllMed®. He has been continuously certified as an emergency paramedic since 1977, and a certified EMT, paramedic, and ACLS instructor since 1981. Dan has designed many emergency medical products since his first one, the White Pulmonary Resuscitator in 1978.

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