Smiling EMS professional in front of an ambulance

A Day in the Life of an EMT

Experience the Challenges and Rewards of EMS

Smiling EMS professional in front of an ambulance

Every day, across bustling cities and quiet rural communities, a group of unsung heroes stands ready to respond to emergencies that can mean the difference between life and death. These heroes are Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and their crucial role in our society cannot be overstated. Consider this staggering statistic: EMTs respond to nearly 30 million 911 calls annually in the United States alone. That’s 30 million moments where someone’s life hangs in the balance, and EMTs are the first line of defense.

In this article, we’ll delve into the riveting world of an EMT, providing you with a firsthand look at the trials and triumphs that define their daily lives. We’ll explore the challenges they face, the sacrifices they make, and the moments of profound satisfaction they experience. You’ll get a glimpse of what life is like for an EMT—from clocking in to work, hours and shifts, daily responsibilities, and responding to calls to eventually clocking out of a shift, debriefing, and re-integrating into one’s personal life. Read more about all these activities and explore these tips for success as an EMT.

Typical EMT Schedules

How Many Hours Do EMTs Work?

EMTs lead lives governed by the clock, but it’s a clock that never stops ticking. The nature of their job demands a unique and often challenging approach to scheduling. EMTs typically work in shifts of varying durations. These shifts can be as short as 8 hours, which is common for part-time or volunteer EMTs. For full-time professionals, 12-hour shifts are more common, allowing for more extended coverage and fewer transitions between shifts. In some cases, EMTs opt for the more grueling but less frequent 24-hour shifts, where they work a full day and night consecutively.

The rotation schedules can vary widely. Two common rotations are the 24/48 and 48/96. In a 24/48 rotation, EMTs work a 24-hour shift and then have 48 hours off before their next shift. In a 48/96 rotation, they work for two consecutive days and nights, followed by an impressive 96 hours off. While this extended time off can be appealing, it also means longer shifts packed with intense moments of action and high-stress situations.

However, the unpredictability of emergency calls is a constant shadow in the life of an EMT, affecting their work-life balance and personal lives significantly. Here’s how:

  • Irregular Hours: EMTs must be ready to respond at any time, day or night, which means their shifts can fall at odd hours. This unpredictability can disrupt sleep patterns, making it challenging to maintain a consistent daily routine or get enough rest between shifts.
  • Missed Events: Emergency calls don’t follow a schedule. EMTs often miss family gatherings, holidays, and personal events due to their work commitments. This can strain personal relationships and lead to feelings of isolation.
  • Emotional Toll: Dealing with emergencies, injuries, and trauma on a daily basis can be emotionally draining. The unpredictable nature of these situations can lead to stress and burnout, impacting an EMT’s mental well-being.
  • Adapting to Variability: EMTs need to be adaptable and ready for anything. This constant state of alertness can make it challenging to unwind during their time off, as they may always be anticipating the next call.

Clocking In: Starting Shift as an EMT

Often, EMTs start their day before the sun rises. They put on their uniforms, knowing it’s more than just clothing; it’s a symbol of trust and responsibility. There’s a quiet camaraderie among colleagues who share the awareness that they are the first responders when the unexpected strikes. Before hitting the streets, there’s a crucial task at hand. They meticulously check their equipment and inspect their ambulance. Every piece of life-saving gear, from bandages to defibrillators, must be in place. The ambulance must be in perfect working order. They understand that any missing tool or malfunction could lead to disaster. With their equipment in check and the ambulance ready, EMTs form a united team bound by their shared purpose. They’re prepared for whatever the day may bring, whether known challenges or unexpected crises. As they leave the station, the city comes to life around them, and they step into the day with determination, knowing they’re committed to answering every call, no matter how uncertain or dangerous it may be.

EMT Daily Duties and Responsibilities

During their shift, an EMT’s core responsibilities revolve around providing rapid and effective emergency medical care. Their roles are diverse, and they must adapt swiftly to various situations, often encountering a wide range of medical emergencies. Here are some of their primary duties and specific examples of emergencies they respond to:

Accident Scenes: EMTs are often the first on the scene of accidents, such as car crashes, falls, or industrial mishaps. They assess injuries, administer first aid, immobilize fractures, and safely extricate patients from vehicles when necessary.

Cardiac Arrests: When a patient experiences a cardiac arrest, EMTs initiate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), use automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to restore heart rhythm, and provide advanced life support measures, including administering medications and managing airways.

Stroke Cases: Recognizing the signs of a stroke is critical. EMTs assess and stabilize stroke victims, ensuring their airways are clear and providing oxygen as needed. They also gather vital information to help hospital staff expedite appropriate treatment upon arrival.

Childbirth: EMTs assist in childbirth emergencies, providing care to both the mother and newborn. This may involve ensuring a safe delivery, cutting the umbilical cord, and addressing any immediate medical concerns for the mother or infant.

Trauma Care: EMTs manage various traumatic injuries, from gunshot wounds to severe burns. They control bleeding, immobilize injuries, and provide pain management, all while maintaining a calm and reassuring demeanor.

EMS team moving a wounded man

Beyond their medical skills, EMTs rely on qualities like empathy, quick thinking, and effective communication to provide exceptional patient care. EMTs often encounter individuals experiencing immense distress. Showing compassion and understanding can help ease patients’ fears and build trust. Whether it’s holding a frightened child’s hand or providing comfort to an elderly patient, empathy is at the core of their care. Also, in emergencies, every second counts. EMTs must make rapid decisions and take immediate action. Whether it’s recognizing the urgency of a situation or adjusting treatment plans on the fly, quick thinking can be a matter of life or death. Clear and concise communication is crucial. EMTs must relay patient information accurately to emergency room staff, update family members, and provide instructions to bystanders in high-stress situations. Effective communication ensures a seamless continuum of care.

In the fast-paced world of an EMT, these core responsibilities and qualities are the cornerstones of their ability to save lives and provide comfort in times of crisis. Their dedication to both the science and art of emergency medical care is what makes them indispensable heroes in our communities.

On the Road: Responding to Calls

Every emergency call is a heart-pounding journey into the unknown, where EMTs navigate a world defined by uncertainty and urgency. The moment the call comes in, their adrenaline surges. The dispatcher relays the details, and the race against time begins—sirens blare, lights flash, and the ambulance weaves through traffic while EMT members are silently preparing for what lies ahead. When they arrive at the scene of a serious accident, they’re met with a barrage of sensory overload. The sight of chaos, the sounds of sirens and distraught voices, the acrid smell of danger—all blend into a disorienting symphony. Yet, great EMTs remain focused, and steel themselves for whatever challenges await.

Every second counts. They must quickly assess the situation, determine priorities, and make life-altering decisions. Then they get to work, applying bandages, administering medications, and using specialized equipment. Each action is deliberate, born of training and experience. Amidst this chaos, they are islands of calm. Their words are a soothing balm to frightened patients and bystanders. They provide reassurance, comfort, and hope, even as they battle against the relentless clock. And the journey doesn’t end at the scene. As they transport patients to the hospital, EMTs continue to monitor vital signs, adjust treatments, and communicate vital information to the receiving medical team. They are the bridge between the crisis and care, ensuring that patients have the best chance for recovery.

While not every emergency call is an emotionally charged experience and the nature of each call may differ, the unwavering goal remains the same: to provide immediate aid, alleviate suffering, and save lives. These calls remind us of the interconnectedness of our communities and the importance of a swift and effective emergency response system in ensuring the well-being of our fellow citizens.

Clocking Out: Ending a Shift as an EMT

As the EMT’s demanding shift nears its end, there’s still crucial work to be done to ensure a smooth transition and the well-being of both the patients and the EMTs themselves. Before leaving their station or hospital, EMTs must complete detailed patient care reports (PCRs). These documents contain essential information about the patients they’ve treated, the care provided, and any medications administered. Accurate and thorough documentation is not just a responsibility; it’s vital for continuity of care.

EMTs report to their superiors, typically a shift supervisor or charge nurse. They provide an overview of the cases they’ve handled, any notable developments, and the current status of patients they’ve transported to the hospital. This reporting ensures a seamless transition between shifts and allows for timely updates on patients’ conditions. EMTs don’t simply clock out and walk away; they hand over their responsibilities to the next shift. This includes briefing the incoming team on any ongoing patient care or follow-up needed. The transition should be smooth to ensure that patients continue to receive the best possible care.

In addition, debriefing sessions are a vital part of an EMT’s shift conclusion. These sessions provide an opportunity to discuss the emotional and psychological effects of the day’s calls, particularly in cases involving trauma or difficult decisions. Debriefing helps EMTs process their experiences, share their feelings, and support one another. It also serves to identify any signs of stress or burnout early, ensuring that EMTs get the help they need to cope with the demands of their job. Leaving the intensity of an EMT shift behind and transitioning into personal life can be challenging. EMTs employ several strategies to decompress:

  • Physical Activity: Some EMTs find solace in physical activities like running or going to the gym, which can help release pent-up stress and energy.
  • Quiet Reflection: Others may prefer quiet reflection or meditation to process the emotional toll of their work.
  • Spending Time with Loved Ones: Being with family and friends provides a crucial support system for EMTs. It helps them reconnect with the world outside of emergencies.
  • Seeking Professional Support: In cases of extreme stress or trauma, EMTs may benefit from speaking with mental health professionals who specialize in trauma and resilience.

Concluding a shift as an EMT is not just about ending the workday; it’s about ensuring that patients are well cared for, that EMTs are emotionally supported, and that they have strategies to transition back into their personal lives. It’s a critical component of the EMT’s ongoing commitment to both their profession and their well-being.

EMS team providing first aid on the street

The Challenges of Being an EMT

Working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) is a demanding and emotionally charged profession that exacts a significant physical and emotional toll. EMTs routinely find themselves thrust into life-threatening situations, where the weight of making split-second decisions can be overwhelming. Witnessing traumatic events and dealing with patients in extreme distress are constant stressors that can leave deep emotional scars. The erratic schedules, long hours, and the perpetual uncertainty of emergency calls also contribute to the physical exhaustion that many EMTs experience.

These relentless stressors put EMTs at risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. Burnout manifests as emotional exhaustion, detachment from patients, and a diminished sense of accomplishment. Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, results from the continuous exposure to others’ trauma, leading to secondary traumatic stress and emotional numbness. To cope with these challenges, EMTs rely on a support system of peers who understand their unique experiences. They participate in debriefing sessions to process traumatic events, access mental health resources provided by their agencies, and prioritize self-care. Establishing clear boundaries between work and personal life, practicing mindfulness, and seeking resilience training are additional strategies EMTs employ to safeguard their well-being while continuing to provide critical care to their communities.

The Rewards of Being an EMT

While being an EMT comes with immense physical and emotional challenges, it’s important to highlight stories of EMTs making a positive impact on patients’ lives. These stories not only represent the gratitude and respect EMTs consistently receive from their communities as a result of their service, but they also highlight the personally rewarding aspects of their profession.

Justin Solobay’s most challenging and memorable call was an early morning house fire with people trapped. “As I pushed the hose into the front door, out comes a firefighter who just kind of hands the baby to me – a lifeless infant,” recounts Justin. “I quickly grabbed an aid bag and O2 kit and got to work.” After restoring stable circulation and breathing, he treated an unconscious toddler, and a teenager. “It was days before my birthday, and…I remember being very calm and intently focused on the first principles of care: airway-breathing-circulation. It’s a rare occurrence to save one person under these circumstances, but that night we were three for three; that was the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten.”

Recently retired 43-year paramedic Tom Perreault of Quincy, Massachusetts recounts that, “In this field, you see so much; no two days are the same,” he said. “Being in the chase car and responding to all types of calls opened my eyes to what patients’ families are going through. We are so focused on the patients we sometimes forget about the families, and this gave me the opportunity to console and help them in a way that I never thought possible. It stuck with me.”

“You always aim to meet the highest standard when providing emergency medical care,” said Captain Jessica Cervantez. She describes one particularly memorable call involved a harrowing situation in which she intervened to save a woman during a domestic dispute. Cervantez’s quick actions to stop the bleeding led to hours of intensive care and ultimately led to the woman’s recovery, forging a unique bond between them. This experience serves as a reminder of the profound impact that EMTs can have in changing the odds and providing compassionate care when it’s needed most. The reward of being in EMS, she said is “to be the rock in a moment when people are falling apart; when they are facing the unknown—especially a loved one, or a child.” she said.

EMT Lucas Sobeck was off-duty and driving home when he noticed a car on the side of the road, its driver unmoving. He pulled over and found Carolyn Rhinehart unresponsive behind the wheel. Along with other EMTs, Sobeck broke Rhinehart’s window glass and managed to free her from the car. After recovering from what turned out to be a heart attack, Rhinehart was able to meet Sobeck and thank him at a recognition ceremony. Sobeck, while grateful for the recognition, echoes his EMT colleagues when he insists that he was only doing his job.

These heartwarming stories and the deep respect from their communities underscore the invaluable role EMTs play in society. Their dedication and compassion continue to touch lives and create bonds of trust that extend far beyond their ambulances.

Gain the Skills and Knowledge Needed to Become an EMT

The EMT profession is not just a job; it’s a calling, a commitment to serve, and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. In the world of EMTs, every day is an unpredictable journey filled with challenges and rewards. They face physical and emotional tolls, managing life-threatening situations and traumatic events. Burnout and compassion fatigue are real risks, but EMTs employ peer support, debriefing, and self-care strategies to persevere. The gratitude and respect they receive from their communities are a source of inspiration and strength.

As we reflect on the vital role of EMTs in our society, let’s take a moment to appreciate the quiet heroes who stand ready to answer our calls for help, often at great personal sacrifice. Moreover, let’s remember the importance of emergency preparedness. By being informed and ready for emergencies, we can empower ourselves and contribute to the safety of our communities. Together, we can ensure that the invaluable work of EMTs continues to make a positive impact on lives, one call at a time.

Enroll today and start your journey by joining Unitek’s EMT Boot Camp and discover how to become an EMT.