How to buy outerwear

Effective outerwear is a system, not a piece of clothing. Outerwear needs to be effective in many different environmental conditions and tense situations that public safety professionals find themselves in. Your jacket shouldn’t just make you look professional; it should keep you warm, dry and safe from a range of field hazards such as fast-moving traffic, blood-borne pathogens, body fluids, and common chemicals.

All products look good when they are new and being shown to you in a presentation. One of the best ways to know how a garment will ultimately serve you and your department is to actually test out the product. Test and evaluation samples are frequently available through the manufacturers and the distributors. There are obvious guidelines for how many garments will be made available. In most cases, the manufacturers do not want the garments back and will only ask for an evaluation in return, and this can be a great way to answer all of your questions pertaining to comfort, durability and performance.

When looking for outerwear, you should evaluate the basic components of the jacket or coat in relation to the climate you work in and your expected levels and types of physical activity. Here are some key outerwear considerations:

1. Outershell: A jacket or coat’s outershell is the outermost layer of fabric and is what’s visible to you and the public. Manufacturers use a wide variety of outershell fabrics that all offer different characteristics along the variables of appearance, durability, breathability, and color-fastness to light. For instance, outershells made of nylon fabrics are typically more durable and crisp looking than outershells made of polyester, but don’t offer the same degree of color fastness to light as polyester fabrics. This is why ANSI 107 certified outershells are typically made of polyester, whereas most duty jackets have nylon outershells. Whether the outershell is backcoated also greatly impacts the garment’s appearance and comfort. While backcoating gives the outershell more body and holds stitching better, it also prevents body heat and sweat vapor from escaping the jacket and can make the wearer feel hot and or damp. Some outershell fabrics are able to overcome this with backcoatings that are printed on in various patterns that allow heat and sweat vapor to easily pass through.

Regardless of what material your jacket or coat’s outershell is made of, it should be relatively quiet and be coated with a DWR (durably water-repellant) treatment.

2. Membrane: The type of waterproof liner that’s incorporated into an outerwear garment is of equal importance to the type of fabric used in the outershell. The majority of outerwear garments on the market today have waterproof membranes in them that are meant to keep the wearer dry in inclement weather conditions. However, there is a huge degree of variation in quality of waterproof membranes along the lines of breathability and durability.

Higher quality liner membranes offer some degree of breathability in addition to waterproofness. The benefit of this is that breathable liners keep water out, while allowing body heat and sweat vapor to escape from the garment to keep the user comfortable. Outerwear garments that have non-breathable liners in them frequently cause users to become damp and subsequently cold on the inside of the garment. Liner durability is also a key differentiator between quality and lower-end outerwear. Many waterproof-breathable liners offer excellent performance when new, but quickly break down and crack when repeatedly exposed to cold and wet field conditions.

 For this reason it’s important to consider manufacturer warranties for outerwear. Quality outerwear should come with a minimum of two years of warranty protection against defects in materials and workmanship. Higher end manufacturers typically provide up to three years of warranty protection. Lastly, you should consider whether your job requires higher levels of protection from more than just rain and wind. Some liners, such as CROSSTECH®, can provide protection against protection against blood borne pathogens such as hepatitis (A through G) and AIDS, as well as common chemicals such as battery acid, pool cleaning chemicals and bleach. These chemicals are not only harmful to humans, but are also known to breakdown conventional waterproof-breathable membranes rendering them worthless. CROSSTECH® is just one example of a higher-performance membrane that provides additional protective benefits.

3. Thermal Liner: If you work in colder weather conditions, the quality and versatility of an outerwear garment’s thermal liner is crucial to your comfort. Thermal liners can be made with a variety of materials and to various thermal ratings. Quilted fleeces are usually ideal for prolonged exposure to cold weather because they are extremely lightweight, breathable, non-bulky, and create an efficient micro-climate around the wearer’s torso. The versatility of a thermal liner can also dramatically influence how you wear your outerwear. Consider things like whether the liner can be zipped out of the outershell and whether it can be worn by itself as a second jacket.

4. Layering: What other apparel will you be wearing underneath your outerwear? Sweaters, fleeces, insulated undergarments, and base-layers can have a great impact on the thermal performance a jacket or coat will provide. Outdoor enthusiasts such as hikers and mountain climbers have realized this fact for decades and utilize layering systems to achieve versatile thermal protection during physical activities in a wide range of climates.

When determining your layering system, be conscious of your jacket’s liner. The liner should be warm but not bulky. The best liners can be removed leaving a lightweight shell jacket that provides three-season comfort and protection. Make sure that the entire system breathes well enough to prevent heat buildup when worn indoors or in a vehicle.
Do you have any other suggestions for officers purchasing and evaluating outerwear? Please leave a comment below or email with your feedback.

Departments can apply for 2009 ARRA "Stimulus" funding to purchase outerwear. Visit PoliceGrantsHelp to learn how.

Tom Ames from Blauer contributed to this report.

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