Flirting with Disaster

Posted inID Mag

Derya Atlan’s emergency medical worker uniform.

An errant car veers onto a crowded city sidewalk, and moments later, a swarm of emergency workers descends upon the scene. Onlookers gather as the police interrogate the unhurt driver, while a few walking wounded are confused: a senior citizen, say, or a teenage tourist or an immigrant who can’t speak much English. Which authority figure running around in a sweaty navy uniform should they ask for a ride to a hospital, or at least some Band-Aids? There’s no standard Emergency Medical Service clothing in America, not even a typical color. How does a dazed patient pick out the appropriate medical specialist in the adrenaline-charged crowd?

Derya Altan, age 23, has aimed to help out at this imaginary crisis scene with her senior thesis project at Parsons. Her EMS uniform prototype comes with customized tool pockets and a stab-proof chest. It would give the workers an unmistakable visual identity and even flatter their butts. Emergency crews have told her that if only their bosses would adopt her design, they’d be safer and more comfortable, efficient, and confident on the job.

Altan started interviewing emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and researching their cacophony of outfits in March 2004, a few months after witnessing the aftermath of a chaotic car accident on New York’s Lower East Side. “It was scary, not knowing who around us to turn to,” she says. For her degree in Parsons’ Integrated Design Curriculum, she adds, “I was trying to figure out, How can you use fashion to combine the authoritative aspects of what EMTs do and the ‘you’re going to be okay’ aspect? EMTs lie somewhere between law enforcement and the medical profession.”

Angled trim attractively frames the rear. EMS workers can stash tools in custom-shaped pockets or hang them from loops.

She discovered that four different entities run the crews: hospital affiliates, fire departments, private companies, and volunteer groups. Even within each entity, there’s no consistent clothing or logo. Employees buy or are given button-down shirts or polos, reflective vests or coats, pants that don’t suit any female body type or the bellies and hindquarters of overweight men–and perhaps some impractical white scrubs. EMTs get mistaken for transit-authority workers, hospital orderlies, security guards. When they respond to non-life-threatening calls, as Altan wrote in her thesis essay, the grim outfits “give a false sense of severity to the situation and bring added anxiety.”

The profession’s only standard symbol is the “star of life”: a six-pointed asterisk with a snake-enlaced physician’s staff at the center. The U.S. government registered the mark for Emergency Medical Services in 1977, but it usually appears just on lapels or ambulance doors. And it has none of the reassuring familiarity of its closest cousin, the Red Cross.

So on a 1970s Singer sewing machine in her Brooklyn apartment, Altan pieced together some navy waterproof nylon (donated by Patagonia) and nylon canvas in light blue and reflective coated cream. (In an ideal world, she’d replace the nylon chest panels with a stab-proof wool now in development at Canesis Network, a textile R&D company in New Zealand.) For the prototype’s shoulders and back, she ordered three Reflexite stars of life from Dee’s Uniforms in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her color scheme is serious but not dour. The angled trim evokes sports gear. The wearer seems fit, healthy, able to carry around someone helpless.

Inside there’s a zip-out fleece lining.

Dots of Velcro–easier to open in a rush than Velcro strips–seal pockets for penlights, scissors, cell phones, latex gloves. Military-looking epaulets hold radio mouthpieces. Zippers unfurl to convert the pants, which have adjustable twill-tape-tab waistbands, into shorts. The jacket, with a zip-out Malden Mills Polartec Windbloc fleece lining, can be reduced to short sleeves or a vest.

When EMTs examined her design, they found just one unforeseen disadvantage. Her shorts option wouldn’t be useful in the field, even on the dog days of summer, because it would expose too much leg skin to blood or shattered glass.

Not that any EMS operator is likely to conduct trials with Altan’s suit anytime soon: They’re committed to longtime suppliers, although a New York fire department executive did tell her that it is now testing new EMS safety coats, pants, gloves, and boots. Administrators she contacted seemed surprised, amused, and pleased by her student dream, and by the idea that a budding fashionista (she’s planning on a career in movie-costume design) would pay so much attention to their grunt-work needs. Joseph Galizia, a fire department quartermaster, sent her a short but kind email: “The redesign looks very interesting,” he wrote. “Comfort, versatility, visibility, and multiple pockets with easy access were all addressed.”

I.D. contributing editor Eve M. Kahn wrote about fashion designed by architects for the May issue.