How to Become a First Responder in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for first responders. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Fire & Emergency Services degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a First Responder Do?

First responders provide initial emergency care at the site of accidents and other emergency situations. They generally work full time and find that their jobs are often high stress as they are often put into life or death situations. First responders need good people skills, compassion, physical strength and the ability to solve problems under pressure.

The following chart gives you an overview of what you need to know about entering this field.

Degree Required High school diploma (or equivalent)
Key Responsibilities Respond to 911 calls
Diagnose/treat patient condition at scene
Transfer patients to medical facilities
Licensure/Certification Required Licensure required, specifications vary by state
Job Outlook (2018-2028) 24%*
Average Salary (2018) $35,430*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Is a First Responder?

A first responder is an emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic who arrives first at an accident scene and provides initial care to accident victims. Your duties include performing a preliminary assessment and diagnosis of patients, administering first aid or life support, stabilizing patients and transporting them to hospitals via ambulance. You may also monitor patients during transport, as well as submit reports on the patient's condition and reaction to treatment. Airway obstruction, emergency childbirth, bleeding and shock are among the situations you encounter. Between emergencies, you restock supplies and perform light maintenance on communications equipment, medical equipment and vehicles.

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

To enroll in a first responder program you will need a high school diploma or have passed the General Educational Development (G.E.D.) test. High school courses in English, math and science can also provide background knowledge that is helpful for later training. Some high schools offer classes that acquaint you with the equipment and procedures used by EMTs and paramedics.

Step 2: Enter a Training Program

You can pursue training at three levels - EMT basic, EMT intermediate and EMT paramedic. Programs are available at all three from community colleges, vocational schools and technical academies. Courses in an EMT basic program cover trauma, respiratory management and cardiac arrest, and train you in the use of suction devices, oxygen delivery equipment, defibrillators and backboards.

EMT intermediate programs introduce you to basic pharmacology, IV fluid treatment and advanced patient assessment. Many require EMT basic certification for admission. Paramedic programs provide advanced training in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and resuscitation. Some programs award a 2-year associate's degree.

Step 3: Obtain Certification and a License

All 50 U.S. states require you to have a license. Licensing requirements vary from state to state, but most include NREMT certification as part of their standard. Certification is available for all three levels of EMT from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT). You need to be at least 18 years old and have completed an approved EMT basic, intermediate or paramedic program to be eligible for certification.

The certification exam at each level consists of a cognitive or written test and a psychomotor or practical test. Initial certification is valid for one year. Each renewal is valid for two years. You can renew EMT basic without retaking the exam by completing 12 hours of continuing education credits, and renew EMT intermediate and paramedic by completing 72 hours of continuing education credits.

Step 4: Obtain a Job

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), ambulance services were the largest employer of first responders ( You also have significant opportunities with local government agencies and hospitals, and a small number with private physicians and outpatient facilities. In 2018, about 257,210 people worked as paid first responders. Employment is projected to rise 7% with 18,700 new positions over the 2018-2028 decade. As of May 2018, the average annual salary was $37,760 according to the BLS.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

If you're a basic EMT first responder, you could seek additional training to become an intermediate EMT, and if you're an intermediate EMT you could become a paramedic. As a paramedic you could become a supervisor, administrator or emergency services operations manager. EMTs and paramedics both can become dispatchers or instructors. If you discover you enjoy working in medicine, you could return to school to become a nurse, physician or other medical practitioner.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you want a career similar to that of an EMT or paramedic but do not feel either of those careers are for you, you may want to consider some alternatives. Some possible similar careers would include police officers and firefighters. Both firefighters and police officers need a high school diploma or its equivalent and will also participate in a training academy. As with paramedics and EMTs, firefighters and police officers work closely with the public, write regular reports and need to be physically fit.

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