What’s it got in its Pockets?

As a reward for bearing with me on the very, very, very, very, very long journey through shock, let’s turn to a somewhat lighter topic. This is a perennial favorite on the online EMS haunts: what do ya carry in your pockets during your shift?

Personally, I’m of the belief that everyone on the ambulance should have at least a few essential items:

Gloves — a more or less essential tool, even if you don’t always wear them you should always be prepared to, and there’s nothing worse than needing to hunt down a pair when things are moving quickly. Sometimes I’m surprised at how many you can go through on a single call. I keep a handful in one pocket and a single lonely pair in another, so I have a “ready” set that can be easily grabbed without having to peel them off from the wad. Remember to restock your supply when the call is done.

Paper — something to write on. Although I find that I write down less the more experienced I become, this is still a non-negotiable tool. I’ve carried a variety of small pads, but nowadays prefer a stack of 3×5 index cards held together with a binder clip — they work better when you’re writing something to hand to someone else, which I often am (noting vitals to give to my partner, for instance). Cards are also useful for holding open the latch on self-locking doors, leaving notes, and various other miscellaneous tasks.

Pen — ’nuff said. Even if your service has gone mostly digital, an EMT without a pen is like a knight without a sword. Also useful for poking blood samples from catheters for glucometry, testing sharp peripheral sensation, and stabbing zombies in the eyeball.

Watch — admittedly not usually stored in the pockets unless you’re Mr. Monopoly. Other than mundane needs like determining when you get to go home, without a working timepiece you can’t properly take vital signs. (Pulling out your cell phone here is only one step better than recording your signs via x-ray “vital vision.”) Something durable, light, and cheap is recommended, but anything that counts seconds will work.


That covers the absolute essentials. But there are a few other items that I’d place just barely behind essential, including:

Flashlight — some sort of small but bright penlight usually works well. This isn’t a clinical penlight for examining pupils — you’d probably burn their jelly right out — but something bright enough for searching a night-time scene, finding things you’ve dropped, and otherwise navigating the darker areas of life. Quite essential on certain shifts and valuable at all times; I recommend something water resistant, with a clip. I like the Streamlight Stylus Pro.

Shears — for all those things in the world that need cutting, a pair of standard trauma shears can’t be beat. Aside from stripping clothes off your patients, with a firm grip these can cut anything including the horizon — seatbelts, wayward tubing, tape, whatever. They also come in handy for wedging into doors, holding open fuel handles, reflex testing, and chucking at angry geese.

Knife — most people seem to carry one, and there’s always one guy who asks “why? shears work better.” Shears do work better for most cutting, but a knife works better for prying, poking, scraping, or levering, and that’s typically how it gets called into use. In almost no case will a knife be useful (or appropriate) in a clinical role, but it seems to be continually called into use for the daily minutiae of EMS — opening packages, fixing equipment, and so on. An affordable but quality folding knife with a clip and a lock is a good choice, and I’m a believer in half-serrated blades — that way you have a smooth edge for prying or slicing, but also an aggressive edge to start cuts in tough materials. I use a Spyderco Delica, an old classic.

Phone — perhaps it shouldn’t be, but nowadays a good cellphone seems almost irreplaceable. I use mine to speak with dispatch or supervisors when the radio isn’t appropriate, to call medical control, occasionally to give ED entry notifications… to note door codes and other tidbits… it has a GPS when needed, and useful reference apps like Epocrates (which includes cool tools like a pill identifier)… you can Google to check drugs names or disorders you’re unfamiliar with… real-time language translators are available… the list goes on. See the DroidMedic for ideas on using these little multitaskers.

Stethoscope — most folks seem to own one, but they don’t always have it on them. If there’s one truism to this job, it’s that the times when the poop hits the fan are never the times you’d expect it to, so try and be prepared. Your service probably provides cheap scopes, which tend to be loud but poor at filtering out background noise, making them less than useful in a busy scene or ambulance. For better or for worse, a stethoscope is also something of an identifier for the medical professional, and can do much to convince the public that you Know Things. Littmann is the most famous and popular brand, but you can probably spend less on others if you know what you’re getting. If it’s not in your pocket you’ll probably forget it when you need it, so I like a model that’s fairly light and can lay flat; I use a Littmann Master Classic II, which has no bell (which tends to be difficult to use in the chaotic prehospital environment anyway) and as a result has a very low-profile head. Mine’s in the most obnoxious baby blue I could find and my name’s all over it, in an attempt to discourage light-fingered coworkers.


Finally, there are the things that aren’t particularly vital, but come in handy if you’re willing to stick them in a pocket somewhere.

Penlight — a standard assessment tool. Probably available in your bags or cabinets but it’s convenient to have one immediately available.

Pocket reference — I recommend making your own.

Extra pen — because pens disappear. I also like to carry a permanent marker for things like labeling unmarked BP cuff bags (put on a bit of tape and write on that — is it an infant cuff? adult cuff? a bunch of OPAs?), marking pulse points, and the like.


There have been other things I carried in the past, but nowadays this about makes up my pocket milieu, and seems to strike a good balance of utility vs. clanking like the Tin Man. (Some people like to store stuff on their belt, but I tend to find that a little silly.) I have a work bag with other junk in it, but that’s a topic for another day.

Anyone have other items they find terribly useful? The variety on this issue seems nearly limitless.






  1. Medi Wicket says

    One thing I’ve done is switch from a flashlight to a headlamp. They too are small, but have the added bonus of allowing you to keep both hands free, especially when working in dark scenes.

    • Kind of clever. I usually wrap a rubber band around the back of my penlight so I can hold it in my teeth for short times, and I sometimes clip it an epaulet, my seatbelt, or wherever to get hands-free light.

      Do you carry it around with you, or keep it in your bag and just grab it when needed?

  2. Fun discussion. I posted about it on my blog: bit.ly/zXRYUJ. As an EMT student, I have a sense of what I think I’ll need, but the recommendations of particular products and the examples of non-standard uses in the field are very helpful to me. Thanks!

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