Career Development

What Is an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)?

March 8, 2021

If you are interested in the medical field and helping people, you might consider becoming an emergency medical technician. These health care professionals provide immediate assistance to patients in emergencies before bringing them to the care of a doctor. In this article, we explain what an emergency medical technician is and how to become one.

What is an EMT?

An emergency medical technician, or EMT, is a first responder who is trained in basic medical knowledge and skills to provide immediate medical care to patients in an emergency. They are often the first emergency service providers to arrive on the scene of a crisis, such as an accident, medical emergency, fire or natural disaster. An EMT's main responsibility is to provide basic and emergent medical care to stabilize patients in crisis before transporting them to a hospital where they can be further assisted by a physician.

EMTs can have several levels of responsibility and certification, and each has different requirements. Some areas use EMT-Basic and EMT-Intermediate or advanced levels, while others classify levels of training and certification as emergency medical responder (EMR), emergency medical technician and advanced emergency medical technician before advancing to the level of a paramedic. While many EMTs work on private ambulances, they can also work for other emergency services, such as a fire department or search and rescue teams.

EMT responsibilities

Common duties of an EMT include:

  • Respond to 911 calls for emergency assistance
  • Assess patient injuries and quickly determine a course of action
  • Perform CPR and defibrillation to resuscitate patients
  • Perform physical exams
  • Control bleeding and pack or dress patient wounds
  • Treat minor wounds, such as cuts and burns
  • Open and maintain patient airways
  • Assist in childbirth
  • Administer oxygen to helps patients breathe
  • Administer medications
  • Treat symptoms of shock
  • Transfer patients in and out of ambulances using backboards and gurneys
  • Comfort and reassure patients in distress
  • Drive ambulances to and from hospitals and scenes of emergencies
  • Communicate with the receiving physicians about patient status and treatments they administered

Related: Browse EMT Jobs

EMT average salary

EMT salaries vary based on their level of certification, employer, experience and location. The national average salary in the United States is $18.00 per hour, while some salaries range from $7.25 to $38.90. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

Does working as EMT prepare you for medical school?

While the training process for an emergency medical technician is different and much shorter than becoming a doctor, working as an EMT can help prepare you for medical school. The work offers extensive preparation for clinical rotations and the opportunity to gain skills and experience in patient communication as well as patient care. If you work as an EMT before going to medical school, you can gain valuable experience and insight into the healthcare profession, emergencies and how to interact with patients.

Related: Learn About Being a Doctor

EMT requirements

Emergency medical technicians must fulfill specific requirements to work in this position, including:

Education

Aspiring EMTs first need to complete their high school education, either by earning a diploma, passing the GED or another equivalent. All EMTs must then earn a certificate or diploma for their role, but educational requirements and the level of care basic and intermediate or advanced EMTs can provide differ according to state regulations.

The first level of education for EMTs is an EMT-Basic (EMT-B) certificate or diploma program. These programs are offered at technical schools and two-year colleges and can take from six months to two years to complete, depending on the institution, coursework, state requirements and the student's schedule. Many EMT programs are designed for people who already have jobs, so they are usually night or weekend classes.

In the basic program, students learn skills such as wound management, splinting broken bones, airway management and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Coursework usually includes basic life support measures, how to respond to emergencies, fundamentals of emergency medical technology and obstetrics and gynecology. Basic EMT training usually requires 110-150 hours of coursework. These entry-level professionals can provide non-invasive medical treatment (they cannot give injections, stitches or anything that requires breaking the skin) and assist patients in taking medicine previously prescribed to them but cannot administer any new medications.

EMTs can advance from the basic level to intermediate (EMT-I) by continuing their education to complete 200-400 hours of coursework. Some states refer to this level as advanced instead of intermediate, while others reserve the "advanced" designation for paramedics. In addition to the EMT-B coursework, these professionals study how to administer medication and IVs, EKGs and complex airway devices. The level of care intermediate EMTs can provide varies by state regulations; in some states, they can administer up to 20 different medications and give invasive care, and in others, they cannot administer medication.

EMT programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

Related: Learn About Being a Paramedic

Training

EMTs receive most of their training during their educational programs. Programs typically include simulated scenarios to help aspiring EMTs practice skills and require clinical experience. Clinical experience usually involves a certain number of hours spent on an ambulance observing trained EMTs at work.

Some employers may require new EMTs to have up to six months of ride-along experience before allowing them to work unsupervised.

Related: What Is On-the-Job Training?

Certifications

EMTs must earn state licensure in all 50 of the United States, but each state regulates how that license will be earned. The typical requirements are:

CPR certification

All EMTs need to be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Some programs require this certification before entrance while others teach it in the program. The American Red Cross, the American Heart Association and the National Safety Council all offer CPR training through their websites. Most CPR certifications need to be renewed every two years.

National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians Certification

This organization provides nation-wide certification exams for EMTs, but after earning certification, EMTs must still fulfill their state's requirements to earn state licensure before working. The NREMT certification consists of a cognitive exam and a psychomotor exam. The cognitive exam is a computer-based assessment designed by the NREMT that provides the test-taker with various scenarios that they must answer correctly. The psychomotor exam requires applicants to demonstrate their ability to perform various emergency skills, such as stopping bleeding, immobilizing spines, managing shock and providing ventilation.

Skills

EMTs need a variety of skills to succeed in this high-stress position, including:

Quick thinking

Since EMTs respond to emergencies and crises, they must have the skill and mental acuity to rapidly assess a situation and take the appropriate action. They need to be able to analyze a patient's condition and determine a course of action quickly.

Problem-solving

These professionals can encounter a wide variety of situations, and so need excellent problem-solving skills to decide how to best help their patients.

Communication

Effective verbal communication is an essential skill for EMTs, as they need to be able to elicit information from patients or witnesses in high-stress situations as well as communicate medical information clearly and quickly to the medical personnel they deliver their patients to. EMTs also need written communication skills to maintain accurate records.

Composure under pressure

EMTs often work in high-pressure conditions. Their role requires the ability to remain calm and take appropriate actions under intense amounts of stress, such as life-or-death situations, interacting with distressed family members or friends and hazardous conditions.

Physical stamina

These professionals work long hours, lift patients to transport them, carry heavy medical equipment and may need to work with heavy materials to extricate patients at the scene of an emergency. They need physical endurance to perform these duties well and repeatedly.

EMT work environment

An EMT regularly encounters life-or-death situations and must be prepared for any scenario. EMTs may be put in dangerous conditions as they respond to emergencies. They spend time driving ambulances, riding in ambulances and giving medical treatments in ambulances, as well as working at the scenes of emergencies to provide care. They work in any location and type of weather, and they spend considerable time standing, kneeling, bending and lifting.

EMTs usually work full time. They may work eight or 10-hour shifts, night and weekend shifts, or could work on a rotating schedule, such as being on call for 24 hours and off work for 48 hours. Their hours can be unpredictable, and they may regularly work more than 40 hours per week. They may have periods of little activity interspersed with periods of intense activity.

Other elements of their work environment including using a variety of medical equipment and emergency tools as well as phones and computer records.

How to become an EMT

If you are interested in becoming an emergency medical technician, you can use these steps to pursue this career path:

1. Graduate high school

EMTs need a high school diploma or its equivalent, such as a GED certificate, before they can enter a training program.

2. Choose an EMT level

There are various levels of certification for EMTs, and each has different requirements. Some areas use EMT-Basic and EMT-Intermediate or advanced levels, while others, including the NREMT, classify levels of training and certification as emergency medical responder (EMR), emergency medical technician and advanced emergency medical technician. Research the typical level designations, responsibilities and state requirements in your area to determine which path you want to pursue. You could earn a lower-level certification and continue training to advance in your career while gaining work experience.

3. Earn CPR certification

While this certification is included in some training programs, others expect you to already be trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques before entering.

4. Complete a training program

The required coursework and experience will vary depending on your intended certification level and state requirements. Programs can take from six months to two years to complete and are offered at most technical schools as well as colleges.

5. Gain relevant experience

While most training programs will provide some clinical experience, employers may require more hours of direct experience as a first responder. Research to determine if you need to obtain more training hours or gain experience by having ride-alongs with professional EMTs.

6. Earn a state license

Every state in the U.S. requires EMTs to have a state license, but requirements vary by state. You will likely need to pass the NREMT cognitive exam, psychomotor exam and apply it to your state emergency services board.

7. Create a resume and apply

Craft a strong resume by including your highest level of education, relevant skills and experience as well as your certifications and state licensure. Write a cover letter for each position you apply to, incorporating keywords from the job description.

Related: Create a Resume on Indeed

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