The job of an emergency medical technician (EMT) is a qualified and skilled one. An EMT can be the starting point for a career in the fire service or as a paramedic, it can also be a career in its own right. But is it difficult to become an EMT and if so, how long does it take to be fully certified and start working as an EMT?
It takes between 120 and 150 hours of study to learn to be an EMT. EMT school will usually last between 3 weeks to 8 months, depending on the scheduling of classes. An EMT will need to pass a certification exam at the end of this process to start working. This can be a challenging program, but it is very doable if you put in the work and time.
Let’s take a look at what the EMT training course involves and just how hard it can be, as well as some inside advice to help you excel in this program and career.
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Also read: How to Become an EMT: Expert Guide
How Long Does It Take To Become An EMT?
The EMT certification is a non-graduate qualification and it is a competitive course that requires some minimum entry requirements (though some institutions may ask for additional requirements):
- You must be 18 years or older
- You need a fully valid driver’s license
- You must have completed regular education to a minimum of 10th grade (sometimes requires high school completion)
- You must have a CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) certification from your state’s healthcare provider
- You must speak fluent English (and other languages can be an advantage)
- You may not have any criminal record (this can vary, read this article)
- You must have vaccination certificates for tetanus, measles, mumps and rubella at a minimum (MMR)
Then you will need to register with the NREMT (National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians) and complete the course and the exam to be a fully certified EMT.
You will need to study for around 120-150 credit hours to complete the EMT certification program and this will usually take between 6 months and 1 year.
It’s worth noting that this is not all a single program of study, the EMT basic training can be done in as little as 3 weeks. However, this does depend on your exact career intentions and which state you intend to apply in. There are some accelerated programs that require the hours to be completed in a shorter time frame to get certified quickly.
If your only objective is to attain EMT basic status, in the majority of cases, this should take 3 to 6 months.
Also read: How Long Does It Take To Become a Paramedic?
EMT Training Requirements
The EMT basic course is a relatively simple course in basic anatomy and managing some basic healthcare needs.
You will learn to:
- Take and read someone’s vital signs
- Manage their airway
- Some basics of obstetrics and/or gynecology
- How to manage bleeding
- How to manage shock
- How to care for head injuries and other types of traumatic injuries
- How to lift and move patients
- How to deal with pediatric (babies and children) patients
- The basics of medical and ethical approaches in healthcare
As you might expect for a course that can be completed in 3 weeks, many of these fields are touched on lightly rather than in heavy depth.
In addition to the 120-150 hours of class and coursework time, you will also need to spend some time with patients.
This time is used to simulate the kinds of scenarios that an EMT basic certificate holder will encounter in their job.
Here is some more good information if you are looking at becoming a EMT:
An EMT Basic student, once they’ve completed their program of study, must take the program’s final exams, as well as the national EMT basic exam.
There are two components to this exam: the cognitive exam and the psychomotor exam.
The cognitive exam tests the EMT’s knowledge of the subjects they must understand to work effectively. The majority of this test is based on the treatment of adults rather than children. But not entirely.
This is done as a computer-based, adaptive test through the NREMT.
If you don’t pass the cognitive test, you will receive feedback and may take it again, no earlier than 15 days later.
If you fail three times, you must take 24 hours of remedial training before you can sit the test again.
If you fail it six times, you must retake the whole EMT training before you will be allowed to retest.
The psychomotor exam is based on interactions with a patient. It has you perform simulated scenarios that demonstrate your abilities to manage and treat common types of emergency patients.
You will do things like manage trauma, assess the situation, and provide oxygen to the patient.
You will also be tested on how to manage bleeding and shock.
There are also tests for splinting, immobilizing fractures, CPR, and other basic procedures.
There is also a higher level of EMT qualification, EMT intermediate, which takes another 350 hours of study and then requires you to take another round of examinations.
This allows the EMT to take on more responsibility and receive a higher level of pay than a basic EMT.
It’s also worth noting that those with an EMT Intermediate certificate may also consider then developing their skills further still and look to qualify as a paramedic (EMT-P) – you may need to attain a 2-year associate’s degree as part of this process, depending on the state requirements.
Not all states recognize the EMT-I, EMT-II, EMT-III, AEMT (an intermediate and advanced) level of certification.
EMT Intermediate (or a variation) is used in the following states:
- New Mexico
- South Dakota
Intermediate level certifications are being phased in most areas, they can also be called by a variety of other names.
Advanced EMT is recognized in the following states:
- New Hampshire
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
There are also some others like EMR, Emergency Care Attendant, EMT-E, and AEMT-C. These are less commonly used and their abilities and scope can vary greatly.
The NREMT now recognizes just 4 levels of EMT certification (or licensure), though some states have others. In order, they are, EMR (Emergency Medical Responder), EMT (Emergency Medical Technician-Basic), AEMT (Advanced EMT), and EMT-P (Paramedic).
Is It Hard To Become An EMT?
It really depends on the individual, but it’s fair to say that for the majority of people, qualifying to EMT basic level is not especially challenging as long as you work hard and study as required.
It’s a short course that is split between practical and theoretical work.
It is, of course, harder to become an EMT intermediate and harder still to become a paramedic.
However, it should be within reach of most students that are dedicated and disciplined to reach an EMT intermediate level and for those that have finished high school and are capable of higher-level study, becoming a paramedic should also be relatively straightforward as long as you put the work in.
How Hard Is EMT School/Class?
EMT school/class isn’t designed to be very hard.
The objective is to teach you the things you need to know so that you can go out and save lives and make a real difference at the scenes of medical emergencies.
Though it is very important that you are competent and safe to treat others in emergencies. This needs to be taken seriously, as it is a serious responsibility being placed on these EMS professionals.
It’s not designed to trip you up or catch you out and as long as you are capable of carrying out the physical duties of being an EMT (the hardest part of the job is, probably, moving patients around for most EMTs), you shouldn’t find anything at EMT school to worry about.
However, the same cannot be said for the EMT test.
How Hard Is It To Pass The EMT Test?
The cognitive element of the EMT test is considered to be very challenging and while most EMT students will sail through EMT school, the test is difficult.
In fact, a large percentage of EMT students will fail the test on the first attempt.
64% of EMT students that take the NREMT test will pass on the first attempt (meaning 36% will fail) and 75% will pass by the third attempt (meaning 25% will still fail, even after 3 tries.)
However, this shouldn’t be a reason to give up or become discouraged, the vast majority of EMT students are fully qualified after the 2nd or 3rd time that they take the EMT basic examination.
Why Is EMT Pay So Low?
EMT basic certification is one of the reasons that EMT pay is so low.
A doctor, for example, spends 6-7 years studying and then another 3-5 years certifying under the mentorship of another doctor.
An EMT, on the other hand, spends 150 hours studying and takes a couple of tests to certify.
This is not to put down the efforts of the EMT, but to put them in context with other healthcare professionals.
Because it is relatively easy to become an EMT when compared to a doctor or a nurse, it attracts much lower pay.
In fact, EMTs make an average of $16.05 an hour, when you include the wages of paramedics!
That’s around half the average wage in the United States today.
In fact, with the “Fight for $15” campaign many people in the service industry now make similar wages to an EMT.
Are EMTs Underpaid?
We would argue that EMTs are underpaid.
It might not be all that tricky to qualify as an EMT but the job itself is very hard work, involves long shifts, a large amount of personal responsibility, physical work, and a substantial amount of personal risk.
However, we would also argue that for many of us, the EMT certification is part of a bigger plan to attain better work.
For example, the fire service requires that nearly all entrants are EMT qualified, and the fire service is a good career that not only pays a better wage than basic EMTs earn, but can also offer excellent benefits upon retirement.
That’s not to excuse the low salaries of pure EMTs but while employers are aware that it’s easy to qualify as an EMT and that there are plenty of people out there looking for work, the salary is not likely to get much better.
One real excuse for poor EMT salaries is the poor payouts from insurers and Medicaid/Medicare for ambulance rides – it’s often lower than the cost of providing the service in the first place.
Also read: Is EMT A Dangerous Job? Risks and Challenges
Can You Live Off An EMT Salary?
Given that the nation’s prisons are not packed with EMTs that have had to go out stealing to support themselves, it’s pretty clear that you can live off an EMT salary but it’s not easy.
In fact, many EMTs work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet and the vast majority, whether they intended to or not, will develop their skills and go further up the career ladder than EMT basic allows.
However, some find the process too hard going and the turnover rate of 20% in the EMT profession is among the highest of any industry.
Also read: Can You Live Off an EMT or Paramedic Salary?
Where Do EMTs Make The Most Money?
The average salary for an EMT is about $37,760 but there are places in America where you can earn more than that, the following places are known for paying a more generous rate than average or for having a much lower cost of living than average to make your money go farther:
- Seattle, Washington
- Sacramento, California
- Memphis, Tennessee
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Hartford, Connecticut
- Tuscon, Arizona
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Austin, Texas
- Albuquerque, New Mexico
- Wichita, Kansas
How Can An EMT Make More Money?
If you intend to be an EMT and want more money your options are:
- Improve your skills – become an EMT intermediate, a paramedic, a firefighter, etc.
- Advance in your career – often easier said than done, there tends to be “EMT agency worker” and “EMT agency boss” and not much else in between
- Look for a better employer – some employers pay more than others in the same places
- Work more overtime – in some EMT roles there’s always space for overtime
- Get another job – it’s not much fun but two jobs pay better than one
Are EMTs In High Demand?
Yes, EMTs are in high demand and the annual growth rate in the profession is expected to be 6% year on year until the end of this decade.
How Competitive Are EMT Jobs?
The better the job, the more competition there will be for it, so if you want the best pay rates and conditions, you will need to go the extra mile to secure them.
Do EMTs Get Diseases?
EMTs, by the very nature of their job, regularly come into contact with people with infectious diseases.
A good program of vaccination can reduce your risks of catching something but, over the course of your career, it’s likely you’re going to get sick a few times too.
How Does EMT School Compare To Firefighter School?
EMT basic certification is much easier than the fire school certification, but it’s also an essential first step if you want to join the fire service.
It may give you an idea if you really want to progress if you find qualifying as an EMT too challenging.
Is EMT A Good Career?
Despite the low pay, yes, EMT is a good career choice.
There are plenty of options for progression if you want them, you carry out rewarding work that really makes a difference to people’s lives and there are growing opportunities with predictions of nothing but growth in the near future.
Also read: Is EMT a Good Job/Career? Is it Worth It?