How to Become an EMT
A comprehensive career overview for medical first responders
The idea of becoming an EMT might feel daunting at first glance. After all, medical emergencies are as varied as they are common, and EMTs are often the first to arrive. From car crashes to house fires to natural disasters, the wail of the ambulance siren comes as a massive relief to those injured, and you can’t help but watch with respect as the well-trained men and women leap into action, administer aid, and carry the wounded to safety.
We’re so transfixed by the work done by the EMS (Emergency Medical Services) that we can’t get enough of their stories. They’re our heroes, our helpers, and most importantly—we need more of them.
If you’ve ever wondered how to become an EMT, are curious about the job and the requirements, or want to know more about a career in blue, this page is for you. Below you’ll find everything you need to know about beginning your EMT career.
WHAT IS AN EMT?
EMT stands for Emergency Medical Technician. They are often the first point of contact in emergency medical situations, such as injuries, sudden illness, age-related emergencies, or trauma. As the first responders, EMTs are often expected to treat wounds, administer CPR, supply oxygen, stabilize head and neck injuries, administer medications, and drive the ambulance.
Most of us are no stranger to an EMT in action—having either been treated by one or seen one working first-hand. They’ve been a staple of America’s first response system since 1865 (when ambulances were horse-drawn carts) and today serve an average of 25 to 30 million Americans per year.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PARAMEDIC AND AN EMT?
Both EMTs and Paramedics serve similar purposes. Both are first responders, and both provide emergency aid on-the-go. The primary difference between the two is the level of training. EMT training is thorough but can be completed in under six months, with opportunities to rise to higher trained levels (such as EMT I, EMT II, and EMT III).
Paramedic training, on the other hand, can take up to two or more years and requires a much more rigorous field of study.
Because of the additional training, paramedics can perform more complex medical procedures in the field, like intubation, IV insertion, manual defibrillation, and drug administration.
Many EMTs go on to become paramedics. In fact, many paramedic programs require applicants to work a certain period of time as an EMT before they can begin paramedic training. The skills learned as an EMT are a vital step towards the paramedic career and skillset.
HOW MUCH DO EMTs MAKE?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for an EMT is $16.50 per hour (or $34,320 a year), though this can vary according to location, experience, and level of training required. In other words, the higher the level of your training, the higher your salary will rise.
As for job availability, it’s a great time to be an EMT. The BLS projects the number of EMT jobs to rise 15% by 2026, much faster than the national average.
HOW LONG DO YOU TRAIN TO BECOME AN EMERGENCY MEDICAL TECHNICIAN?
Not long! If you’re studying to be an EMT in Arizona, for example, you can complete your courses in just 14 days by attending the Unitek EMT 14-Day Boot Camp. The course features hands-on, instructor-led training across 14 consecutive days (as the name suggests). The robust curriculum (frequently updated as the medical landscape is constantly changing) combines theory lectures with hands-on medical equipment exercises.
Students can expect 10 hours of instruction per day (simulating the intense pace of an EMT), realistic emergency simulations, and assistance in passing the National Registry EMT (NREMT) certification exam.
(Oh, and complimentary lunches and dinners are also provided, so all you’ll need to focus on is learning to save lives).
After you’ve been certified, you’ll still need to keep up with your training and any changes in the field. Unitek also offers an EMT refresher course for just that purpose.
WHO CAN BE AN EMT?
If you want to become an EMT, there’s a good chance you can. There are requirements you’ll need to meet, however, before you can start learning to drive the ambulance. EMT applicants must:
- Have a high school diploma or GED
- Be CPR-certified
- Have the ability to lift more than 100 pounds
- Pass a criminal background check and drug test
Requirements may vary slightly according to the training program you choose, but these four are the most common.
(If you aren’t CPR certified yet, check out Unitek’s CPR training here).
WHO SHOULD NOT BECOME AN EMT?
Not everyone can be an EMT, unfortunately. These include applicants who:
- Are unable to read at a 9th grade level
- Don’t meet the basic requirements
- Have a criminal background or a history of drug abuse
- Just want to wear the uniform
- Just want to drive fast
- Easily “burn out” from long shifts and stressful situations
- Think that EMT training will be easy because it’s shorter than a college degree
Being an EMT isn’t all about racings through red lights, blaring a siren, and saving dozens of lives a day. At its core, the job of an EMT is simply to care for people. It requires patience (lots of patience), the ability to stay calm and think under pressure, and to treat band-aid situations with the same level of professionalism as stretcher situations.
HOW TO BECOME A CERTIFIED EMT?
In addition to your healthcare provider CPR certification and the completion of a state-approved EMT program, you’ll also need to be certified by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (the NREMT exam).
The NREMT exam consists of two parts—a cognitive exam (knowledge test) and a psychomotor exam (a hands-on assessment). Requirements may very slightly from state to state.
The good news is, your EMT courses should cover everything you need to know for the tests, so no additional research is required! The Unitek EMT 14-Day Bootcamp, for example, teaches future EMTs with the NREMT specifically in mind.
If you’d like to brush up on any of the psychomotor exam treatments, though, below are a few checklists from nremt.org on key procedures that will almost certainly be on the test.
WHAT ARE THE PHYSICAL REQUIREMENTS FOR AN EMT?
EMTs must perform a wide variety of physical tasks during their shifts, so to do the job properly (and best care for your patients), there are some physical requirements you’ll need to meet.
+ Strength and Mobility – EMTs should be able to lift a minimum of 100 pounds, push a minimum of 50 pounds, and have the stamina, endurance, and flexibility to repeatedly lift, bend, and kneel.
+ Coordination – Wrapping bandages and operating medical controls takes a steady hand (for paramedics, this requirement is even more important as they perform procedures such as inserting IVs). You also may be working in small spaces, climbing stairs, or carrying patients.
+ Communication – In order to treat patients as quickly as possible, doctors and hospitals will be looking to you to report clearly and concisely on your patients’ conditions, so EMTs must be able to speak clearly.
+ Sensory – Good vision and good hearing are very important. Both are required to assess situations, treat patients, and safely transport them back to the hospital.
+ Overall Health – In addition to being up-to-date on your immunizations, you’ll also be expected to pass a basic physical to show you have no health issues that could prevent you from doing your job. Some companies also screen for drug and alcohol use and most will screen applicants if they find a history of abuse.
The exact physical requirements will vary by state, hospital, or company (colorblindness, for example, might be an issue for some but not for others), so be sure and read the requirements carefully when applying.
WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY FOR AN EMT?
Ask this of any EMT and the answer will always be the same—there are no typical days. Shift lengths will depend on your employer (some work 12-hour shifts, others 24-hour) and those on-call hours can be unpredictable as you never know what emergency calls will come.
Most shifts begin with a rig check—examining all the parts and supplies of the ambulance to make sure everything is in perfect operating condition (the last thing you want is to show up at an emergency and discover your oxygen tank is nearly empty or you’ve run out of bandages).
Like fire fighters, EMTs on the nightshift sometimes sleep at their headquarters, ready to jump into action when a call comes in. During the day, EMTs clean the station, socialize in the recreation room, or study up for additional certification. But when the call comes in, you’re expected to drop everything immediately. When lives are on the line, seconds often make all the difference.
The emergencies themselves range from heart attacks to car accidents to childbirth and much, much more—so many possibilities that it would take far too long to list them all out here. Your job as an EMT is to reach the patient as quickly as possible, stabilize the patient and administer the initial treatment, and be in contact with your ER doctor if a trip to the hospital is required.
So what’s a typical day like for an EMT? Never boring.
WHAT SHIFTS DO EMTs WORK?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most EMTs work full time with at least 40 hours per week. Traditional shifts are either 12-hour or 24-hour, depending on your company’s policies. Overtime is also available at many locations, with 1 in 3 EMTs working more than 40 hours in a week.
Because emergencies can happen at any time, overnight hours and weekends can also be involved.
CAN EMTs TRANSFER TO OTHER STATES?
Exact requirements vary from state to state, but because the certification exam is administered by a national organization (the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians), transferring to a job in another state is typically easy to do if your certification is up-to-date.
If moving to Texas, for example, the state doesn’t require you to take the NREMT exam again if you’re already certified.
There will be applications (and application fees) involved, however, so be sure to research requirements before the move so you don’t run into any surprises.
SHOULD I BECOME AN EMT?
If you’re smart, hard-working, physically capable, and compassionate, then you can become an EMT. Whether you should become an EMT, though, is a question only you can answer. To help with the decision, here’s some advice from EMTs in the field on their experiences with the job.