Career as a EMT/Paramedic

How to Become an EMT/Paramedic

What EMTs and paramedics do matters. Day in and day out, they carry out profoundly important work, making a difference in countless lives.

They’re responsible for treating people who have suffered heart attacks, strokes, seizures, car accidents, burns, bone fractures and other serious injuries and illnesses. Their quick assessments and professional care is accomplished while transporting patients to the hospital. Let's see how they get there.

Steps to Become an EMT

The most common path to becoming an EMT or paramedic is to enroll in an EMT certification program. Most are non-degree award programs that can be completed in less than one year, though some may last up to two years. This typically entails courses in emergency skills, and often, in gaining ER or ambulance experience. EMT courses are offered at community colleges, universities, hospitals, EMS academies and technical institutes.

To become a paramedic, you must first be a certified EMT. Paramedics perform more advanced procedures and therefore require more extensive education and training. They often obtain an associate’s degree.
Becoming an EMT or paramedic can take one to three years.

  • Get your high school diploma and CPR certificate.

    If you’re in high school and know you’re interested in a career in EMS, be sure to take classes in anatomy and physiology.

  • Find a program.

    Most community colleges and some state colleges and hospitals offer training for EMTs, and it’s important to pick an accredited program. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs offers a list of accredited EMT and paramedic programs by state.

  • Take the EMT Basic course.

    It's a prerequisite for EMT Intermediate and EMT Paramedic training. Instruction includes assessing patients, handling trauma and cardiac emergencies, clearing obstructed airways, wound care, how to correctly use emergency equipment (backboards, splints, suction devices) and more. Expect about 150 hours of instruction, some of which may occur in a hospital or ambulance setting.

  • Get EMT Intermediate training.

    Requirements vary from state to state. Training commonly includes 35 to 55 hours of additional instruction beyond EMT Basic. In addition to being able to perform noninvasive procedures, advanced EMTs also conduct limited pharmacological interventions.

  • And to be a paramedic...

    Complete both EMT basic and advanced instruction, as well as classes in advanced medical skills. Programs often incorporate field training in an ER or ambulance. Paramedic training programs can take up to two years to complete, and students obtain certificates or associate's degrees of applied science in EMT-Paramedic.

Best Schools for EMTs

The best school for someone else may not be the best school for you. Here is what to consider during your research to ensure a good match:

  • program structure and curriculum
  • types of clinical education and training opportunities
  • faculty composition and tenure, student demographics
  • facilities, campus setting, geographic location
  • size of the school, size of the class
  • licensure pass rate, employment rates
  • degrees awarded, program length
  • admission requirements
  • cost and financial aid opportunities
  • extracurricular activities.

Generally speaking, there is no official ranking system, but various websites have ranked the top 10 of the hundreds of accredited EMT and paramedic programs around the country.

1George Washington UniversityWashington, D.C.The university's Health Sciences Program offers several programs including a bachelor’s, master’s and dual degree in EMS.
2Brigham Young UniversityRexburg, Id.Ranked 11th among western regional colleges (U.S. News & World Report, 2015).
3Stony Brook UniversityStony Brook, N.Y.Offers an EMT Basic-paramedic program.
4Broward CollegeFt. Lauderdale, Fla.Offers EMT Applied Tech Diploma, Paramedic Tech Cert. and A.S. in Emergency Medical Services.
5University of Iowa, Carver College of MedicineIowa City, Ia.Offered the state's first paramedic training program, which has been in existence over 30 years.
6University of UtahSalt Lake City, UtahHas offered EMT and paramedic programs since 2009. Boasts high pass and placement rates and a student satisfaction rate of 97%.
7Virginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmond, Va.The Division of Emergency Medical Services works with the Richmond Ambulance Authority, VCU LifeEvac and local fire and paramedic rescue units.
8University of MarylandBaltimore County, Md.Trains students for certification at the highest level of EMT paramedic.
9Drexel UniversityPhiladelphia, P.A.Has a strong working relationship with the City of Philadelphia and the Hahnemann University Hospital Emergency Department, where students complete their clinical hours.
10Miami Dade CollegeMiami, Fla.Offers an Associate in Science in Emergency Medical Services Program -- a two-year course of study.

"Get a bachelor’s degree, read 30 minutes or more day of the professional and research literature for EMS, be a self-directed learner to obtain additional training and participate in committees and task forces. Jim Page is attributed as saying, 'The decisions in EMS are made by those who show up.'”

Greg Friese, MS, NRP

Applying to School

When applying to schools to study to become an EMT, make sure to choose a school or courses that are accredited for certification within your state or country. Before enrolling, check the qualifications and reputation of the programs in which you’re interested. If possible, ask current paramedics for feedback. Also know up-front which level EMT you wish to train for. There are three professional levels:

EMT-Basic120-150 hours of training
EMT-IntermediateUp to 300 hours of training
EMT-ParamedicRequired to complete over 1,000 hours of training and often, to obtain an associate’s or bachelor’s degree

EMT certificate programs may be offered through police, fire, health departments, some hospitals, technical schools and both degree and nondegree college and university programs. Certificate programs are most attractive to those wishing to become certified quickly in order to to apply for an entry-level job. Recently, a large number of online certificate programs have become available. If you’re already a certified EMT, these programs will help you fit classes into your work schedule.

Most schools require:

  • That you be at least 18 years old
  • A high school diploma or its equivalent
  • Up-to-date immunization for TB, rubella, measles, mumps and varicella
  • Hepatitis C vaccination series
  • Satisfactory completion of college-level English and math courses
  • Proof that you’ve passed a recent physical exam
  • A clean background check
  • Proof of medical insurance

If you plan on a career as a paramedic, apply only to schools that teach all levels of EMT. If you already work as an EMT Basic, make sure the EMS program will let you advance to paramedic. Many schools and hospitals that offer EMT training don’t certify beyond EMT Basic.

Finally, be sure to choose a program that guides you through the NREMT exam, the certification from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians required by all 50 states.

Paying for School

Paying for school is never easy, even for an EMT or paramedic credential or degree. Make sure to start planning early. You’ll want to save and pursue aid from the programs you apply to, plus consider applying for scholarships, like the ones below.

Bound Tree Medical
Grant Guys
College Scholarships
Student Scholarship Search
Michael J. Latta Scholarship Foundation
More ScholarshipsInformation
Federal Student AidThe U.S. Department of Education office provides more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds annually to 13-plus million students.
University or College ProgramSchools and programs offer scholarships and financial aid to their students.
AmericorpsParticipating as a volunteer results in money for a student's education, no matter their major.
U.S. ArmyThe program covers a student's tuition in exchange for time spent on active duty.
Indian Health ServiceThree scholarships -- for preparatory, pre-graduate and health profession students -- are awarded annually.

"It is very rewarding when you take care of someone who has a good outcome, or when you save a life. You feel like you have purpose in life when you’re able to take care of someone and ease his or her fears. One surprising perk is that some businesses offer discounts to EMS professionals."

Charlene Cobb

Florida EMT

Getting Licensed

All 50 states mandate that EMTs and paramedics be licensed, with specific requirements varying from state to state. For most states, you’ll qualify for licensure if you hold certification from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT), which certifies both EMTs and paramedics. NMRET fees vary by school and state. Exam fees vary, and may cost approximately $100.

NREMT requires students to pass both written and skills tests. A good idea is to prep with practice exams you’ll find online. Candidates are given three chances to pass NREMT exams before being required to take remedial courses.

However, before being allowed to take the NREMT exam, you must complete a certified education program. Many states require you to also pass a state exam. Additionally, you’ll likely be required to take about eight hours of instruction to gain a license to drive an ambulance.

EMTs must re-register for certification, usually every two years. To re-register, you must be working as an EMT and meet continuing education requirements.

Getting Experience

Many employers seek people with previous experience, and a great way to get that experience is by volunteering -- with a local fire department or an ambulance service. To volunteer, you’ll need to complete a training program (some fire departments offer on-the-job training) and possibly earn state or national licensure.

You can check for volunteer positions on online EMT directories. It’s also a good idea to contact local hospitals, volunteer fire departments and volunteer ambulance services. As a volunteer EMT or paramedic, you’ll perform many of the duties as your paid colleagues. You may work on a standby basis or have regular shifts. Either way, it’s likely you’ll work a few days a week, learning how to assess patients’ conditions, manage a wide array of emergencies, learn to make fast decisions under pressure and see for yourself if this is the job for you.

Poll: Why Did You Become EMT?

So we have answered the question of how one becomes an emergency medical technician. But... why become an emergency medical technician? That's the question we posed to working professionals.

Rich Lucius (SouthCoast Training, 2014): "I became an EMT when I was trying to figure out a job I could work full-time and still work another job. Knowing that I could work two 24's or something like that and do something on the side was very appealing. I became a paramedic when I realized that within the EMS system I work in, there is really only benefit to working at the ALS level if you really want to make a difference. One can certainly stay in the EMT role, but unless you are in a very specific system, you're going to be taking people between nursing homes, dialysis centers, and hospitals, which can very quickly turn into a real grind."

Charlene Cobb (Hillsborough Community College, 1993): "My son was hit by a car and the EMTs were very kind-hearted. They asked if I’d like to help out and volunteer if they trained me. I wanted to give back so I said yes.”

Richard Webber (Paramedic Practice, 2002): "I knew that I wanted to help people in a medical sense. I didn’t want to have to undergo the long intense training of a doctor, and I don’t have the bedside manner of a nurse. Becoming a paramedic seemed to be an obvious choice that played to my personal strengths. I’ve always been good at working under pressure, and shift patterns don’t bother me at all. I wanted a job where every day was different and where I knew I would never be bored. That is what being a paramedic meant to me."

Jon McCarthy (Tallahassee Community College, 1997): "As the son of a deputy sheriff, I originally wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement. I did a little of that during my time in the Coast Guard, but gravitated towards EMS. I would attribute this to a few things. I enjoyed the search-and-rescue experiences I had while in the Coast Guard. When I ended my active duty, I was on the fence on which direction I wanted to go between law enforcement and EMS. My mother suggested EMS because I loved gory horror movies as a kid. My father advised against law enforcement because of, as he said, "that job changes you." Ironically, I just signed a contract with a publisher for my book about how the EMS profession "changes you," so I don't think I fully dodged that bullet."

Jessica Smith (University of Colorado): "Part of it was that I was always one of the more responsible people within my peer group. Another aspect was the fact that I was cool under pressure. I always had a strong stomach and desire to help people, so it seemed like an easy connection to make. When times got a little hard after the economy crashed, I needed to pick up some part-time work, EMS seemed like the best place to do it. I enrolled in the program offered at my local community college and dove right in. Having already obtained my bachelor's, enrollment was a breeze and I quickly took on a leadership role within the class itself."

Greg Friese (University of Idaho, 1996): "EMS was a natural extension of work I had been doing working at a summer camp and leading kids on wilderness expeditions. I was living in a small town, and joining the fire department as an EMT was a nice way to contribute to my community."

George W. Loan Baker (Cape Cod Community College): "I wanted to be a firefighter. My father was a city firefighter in New Rochelle, NY. In Falmouth, Mass., where I grew up the fire department ran the ambulance and being an EMT gave you more of a chance to be involved. I went to EMT school the Summer of 1979 just after graduating from High school I became a paramedic in 1983 so I could become a full time firefighter."

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