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The Ultimate Career Guide for Aspiring EMT Volunteers

How to Become an EMS Volunteer: Duties, Responsibilities, Requirements, Certifications, and Salary

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

— Mahama Gandhi

Man using a laptop 

How to Become a Volunteer EMT

Are you athletic? Quick-thinking? Do you remain calm in an emergency? Do you want to help others in their time of need?

If so, you could be a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician or EMT.

This comprehensive career guide should answer many of your questions about becoming a volunteer EMT.

What Is an EMT?

Emergency Medical Technicians (or EMTs) are the front line of emergency medical care.

When someone is sick, injured, traumatized, or otherwise endangered or incapacitated, an EMT is often the first to respond. Working alongside other emergency professionals, EMTs provide life-saving care on-site and transport patients to hospitals for more complete medical services.

On any given day, EMTs may provide CPR, administer medications, wrap wounds, stabilize head injuries or broken bones, administer oxygen, treat complications such as shock and drive the ambulance.

An EMT’s care can often be the difference between life and death for a patient during an emergency, making it an important role in the healthcare system and our communities.

What Is a Volunteer EMT?

For the most part, a volunteer EMT provides the exact same services that a paid EMT provides. They’re just not paid.

There can be a few other differences, as well.

Paid EMTs are often employed in large cities, whereas volunteer EMTs usually work in rural areas—though there may also be volunteer EMT opportunities in cities as well. As a result, some volunteer EMTs may see a lower volume of calls in a typical shift than paid EMTs.

One paid EMT explained that he averaged 15 calls in a 12-hour shift while working in a larger city, but only made 4 or 5 calls (per 12-hour shift) while working in a rural community.

Another important difference is that EMS volunteers often have more flexibility on when it comes to their work schedules. In some EMS agencies, volunteer EMTs (and volunteer paramedics) are on call, and are not required to be located at a fire, ambulance, or EMS station for extended shifts.

Why Volunteer as an EMT?

EMTs play an important, life-saving role in the health and safety of their community.

However, for a variety of reasons, including lack of funds, many EMS agencies in the U.S. have trouble staffing and retaining EMTs. This makes volunteer EMTs critical to the entire healthcare system.

According to EMS1.com, EMS volunteers answer close to half of the nation’s 911 calls, and possibly 90 percent of calls in the most rural states.

Most EMT volunteers see the job as a rewarding challenge, a learning opportunity, good hands-on experience for other healthcare professions (including doctor or nurse), a chance to make a difference in the lives of others, and an opportunity to give back to their community.

Furthermore, many volunteer EMTs like the fact that they are prepared for medical emergencies, in the event their family or friends get sick or injured.

Volunteer EMT Pay

Do volunteer EMTs get paid?

One hundred dollar bills

Even though the EMT role is vital to a community’s health, and requires specialized skills and training, volunteer EMTs are generally not paid.

There are some EMS agencies that pay volunteers by the run, or even offer standby pay. This may become more common as the demand grows for qualified medical first-responders.

Many EMS programs do offer funding for school and continuing education courses related to the EMS role. Pay and benefits differ greatly from one EMS agency to another, so it’s best to contact the organizations you’re considering for complete details.

Obviously, being a volunteer EMT is valuable experience if you’re considering a career as a paid EMT. If you are interested in becoming a paid EMT, you should know that it’s one of the fastest-growing professions in the U.S. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for EMTs and paramedics was $37,760 (as of May 2019) and the highest 10 percent earned more than $58,640. Employment of EMTs is projected to grow 7 percent from 2018 to 2028, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

Here is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics had to say about the EMT job outlook:

“Growth in the middle-aged and older population will lead to an increase in age-related health emergencies, such as heart attacks and strokes. This increase, in turn, will create greater demand for EMT and paramedic services. An increase in the number of specialized medical facilities will require more EMTs and paramedics to transfer patients with specific conditions to these facilities for treatment.”

Who Can Become a Volunteer EMT?

All states in the U.S. require EMTs, including volunteer EMTs, to complete a formal EMT training program and be licensed.

More importantly, EMTs cannot provide the high level of care that is needed without proper training. While licensing requirements vary by state, EMT training programs are offered at the basic, intermediate, and paramedic levels.

An EMT student will become certified in CPR and first aid, recognize medical conditions and perform life-saving treatments (for example, administering oxygen and defibrillating patients whose hearts have stopped).

Students also learn how to respond to various emergencies, how to use ambulance equipment, and how to work with other EMS professionals, including other EMTs, dispatchers, firefighters, police officers, and hospital staff.

How to Become a Volunteer EMT

Volunteer EMT Requirements

Providing emergency medical care is a stressful, rigorous, and risky occupation. For this reason, EMTs must be prepared for physical, mental, and emotional challenges. Some of the basic requirements to work as a volunteer EMT include:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • At least 18 years old
  • Good vision (glasses and contacts are OK)
  • Accurate color vision
  • Ability to lift and carry heavy objects
  • Excellent physical condition
  • Emotionally stable

Volunteer EMT Training

To become a volunteer EMT in any state, you must first complete a formal EMT training program and be licensed.

Volunteer EMT training programs can be intensive courses lasting a few weeks or regular semester-long college courses, taking three months or more. Programs typically include about 100 hours of classroom work to include hands-on training and emergency simulations.

Some EMS organizations offer EMT training programs at no cost to candidates who commit to volunteering for a certain length of time. To avoid issues with licensing, make sure to attend a state-approved EMT program. These are most commonly provided by emergency care training facilities, community colleges, and trade/technical schools.

CPR Certification

Many EMT training programs require students to possess their CPR certification before they can enter the program. Many local and online organizations provide training for certification. For more information about CPR certification options at local sites and online, visit the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association.

NREMT Cognitive Exam

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After EMT training, and before you can become a volunteer EMT, you most also pass the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) cognitive exam. The cognitive exam is a computer adaptive test of between 60 and 110 questions.

The exam covers topics such as airways, respiration and ventilation; cardiology and resuscitation; trauma; medical; obstetrics/gynecology; and EMS operations.

The exam usually takes two hours. In order to pass, test-takers must meet what the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians defines as a “standard level of competency.”

(Click here for a comprehensive guide on how to pass the EMT exam).

Psychomotor Exam

Lastly, before you can qualify to be a volunteer EMT, you must pass the EMT psychomotor examination. This examination is administered by either the State EMS Office or at the training institution (with approval of the State EMS office).

This exam requires students to demonstrate their ability to successfully perform a number of emergency skills, including:

  • Patient Assessment / Management — Trauma
  • Patient Assessment / Management — Medical
  • BVM Ventilation of an Apneic Adult Patient
  • Oxygen Administration by Non-Rebreather Mask
  • Bleeding Control / Shock Management
  • Cardiac Arrest Management / AED
  • Joint Immobilization
  • Long Bone Immobilization

You will need to check with your state’s EMS office for testing locations and what score is needed to pass. More information about these exams are available at the NREMT website.

Other requirements

Most volunteer EMT candidates are still required to complete an application and interview for the position.

Candidates will likely be drug tested and undergo background checks. References may also be required.

Depending on the EMS organization’s policies, a volunteer may be disqualified for a variety of reasons, including physical disabilities, a history of alcohol or drug abuse, mental health issues, or criminal convictions.

What to Expect as a Volunteer EMT

Ambulance parked near foliage

Volunteer EMTs experience the same traumatic events as paid EMTs, so be prepared.

You will be treating patients who have severe injuries, infections, diseases, and other afflictions. You will see blood, pain, panic, and confusion. You will encounter dangerous situations that threaten your safety and you will probably see more than a few dead bodies. It can be a shocking, emotionally draining, and high-stress environment. It’s definitely not for everyone.

The typical duties of a volunteer EMT can include:*

  • Respond to 911 calls for emergency medical assistance, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or bandaging a wound
  • Assess a patient’s condition and determine a course of treatment
  • Provide first-aid treatment or life support care to sick or injured patients
  • Transport patients safely in an ambulance
  • Transfer patients to the emergency department of a hospital or other healthcare facility
  • Report their observations and treatment to physicians, nurses, or other healthcare facility staff
  • Document medical care given to patients
  • Inventory, replace, and clean supplies and equipment after use

The specific responsibilities of a volunteer EMT depends on their level of certification and the state they work in. The National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) provides national certification of EMTs and paramedics at four levels: EMR, EMT, Advanced EMT, and Paramedic. Some states have their own certification programs with similar titles.

  • Emergency Medical Responder (EMR): EMRs are trained to provide basic medical care with minimal equipment. These workers may provide immediate lifesaving interventions while waiting for other emergency medical services (EMS) resources to arrive. Volunteer EMT jobs in this category may also go by a variety of titles including Emergency Care Attendants, Certified First Responders, or similar.
  • Emergency Medical Technician (EMT): EMTs, also known as EMT-Basics, care for patients at the scene of an incident and while taking patients by ambulance to a hospital. An EMT has the skills to assess a patient’s condition and to manage respiratory, cardiac, and trauma emergencies.
  • Advanced EMT: Advanced EMTs, also known as an EMT-Intermediates,have completed the requirements for the EMT level, as well as instruction in more advanced medical procedures, such as administering intravenous fluids and some medications.
  • Paramedic:Paramedics provide more extensive prehospital care than do EMTs. In addition to doing the tasks of EMTs, paramedics can give medications orally and intravenously, interpret electrocardiograms (EKGs)—which monitor heart function—and use other monitors and complex equipment.

Volunteer EMS Work Hours

EMT work schedules vary depending on the EMS agency, though work shifts that last 9, 12, or 24 hours are common.

In rural communities, it is more typical to work 24-hour shifts, or the 48/96 schedule, which consists of two consecutive 24-hour shifts on duty, followed by four consecutive off-days. This enables rural locations to have staff working 24/7.

Often times, staff will be on duty for 24 hours and on call for the following 24 hours. Stations that follow this model typically house their personnel in a house-like setting so they can eat, sleep, and perform daily tasks while waiting for any calls.

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can you be a volunteer EMT while attending college?

Man with a backpack

Yes. Many EMT volunteers are full-time or part-time college students. Often, they are students pursuing a career in healthcare, including paramedic, doctor, nurse, physician assistant, medical technician, therapist, or caregiver.

EMT training and experience can help students get accepted into medical school and support their education. Volunteer EMT is also great experience for careers in firefighting, police, and military.

Can you volunteer part-time?

Absolutely. The need for qualified EMT professionals is so great, most EMS organizations are thankful for any volunteer work they can get.

Does a volunteer EMT require training?

Yes. All states in the U.S. require EMTs, including volunteer EMTs, to complete a formal EMT training program and be licensed.

How long does it take to get EMT certified?

EMT training programs can last a few weeks to six months. Courses commonly include about 100 hours of classroom work, to include hands-on training and emergency simulations.

Where can I get volunteer EMT training?

To avoid issues with licensing, make sure to attend a state-approved EMT program. Check with your state’s EMS office for approved schools.

How long does it take to become a volunteer EMT?

Depending on your program, EMT training and certification can take from a few weeks to six months. It could take a few weeks to schedule and complete your National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) cognitive and psychomotor exams.

Where do volunteer EMTs work?

Volunteer EMTs work at the same places that paid EMTs work. Typically, this includes fire departments, ambulance services, hospitals, and other private or community EMS agencies.

How can I find EMT volunteer opportunities?

Nationally, the need for volunteer EMTs is enormous, but the opportunities for volunteers EMTs are different for each state. Typically, these include fire departments, government EMS departments, independent EMS providers, hospitals, and ambulance services.

Your state EMS office may offer a volunteer referral service. Otherwise, many online job search websites will list openings for volunteer EMTs—alongside EMT jobs that pay.

Does the job of volunteer EMT pay?

Most volunteer EMT jobs do NOT pay, though there are often other job benefits.

The World Needs More Heroes. Become a Volunteer EMT.

If you have what it takes to be a life-saving EMT, and the responsibilities of an EMT don’t scare or overwhelm you, your community needs your help!

Volunteering as an EMT is a challenging and rewarding role. It’s also a great learning opportunity, good experience for a career in EMS or other related fields, and a unique opportunity to make an important difference in people’s lives.

Get Mission-Ready and Certified Fast at Unitek EMT

Unitek EMT offers multiple EMT courses, as well as an accelerated EMT Boot Camp. Taught by seasoned EMS professionals, this 14-day boot camp includes hands-on exercises, active learning, and clinical simulations. Contact us to learn more.

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