First Responder: Job Duties, Occupational Outlook, and Education Requirements

Research what it takes to become a first responder to emergencies. Learn about training requirements, median salary and job duties to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Fire & Emergency Services degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a First Responder?

First responders are often the first medically trained professionals to arrive on the scene of emergencies and accidents. First responders are normally police officers, EMTs and firefighters. Police officers' job duties include responding to emergency calls while out on patrol, at which point they might be required to perform CPR or first aid, secure a crime scene or detain suspects. EMTs also perform basic lifesaving techniques on scene and continue to provide care on the way to a hospital or other healthcare facility. Firefighters respond to a variety of emergency situations, including fires, natural disasters, hazardous waste spills and medical emergencies.

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

Police EMTs Fire Fighters
Education Required High school diploma High school diploma High school diploma
Training Required Police academy Postsecondary training program Postsecondary training program
Key Responsibilities Restore order; provide first aid to injured Administer first aid; transport the injured; inform hospitals of patients' conditions Answer fire alarms; extinguish fires; rescue and treat victims
Licensure/Certification N/A CPR certification is required EMT-Basic certification may be required
Job Growth (2014-2024) 5% (for all police & sheriff's patrol officers)* 24% (for all EMTs and paramedics)* 5%*
Median Salary (2015) $58,320 (for all police & sheriff's patrol officers)* $31,980 (for all EMTs and paramedics)* $46,870*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does a First Responder Do?

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 defines first responders as individuals who protect life, evidence, property or the environment during the early stages of an emergency (www.dhs.gov). Fire fighters, law enforcement personnel, medical personnel, utility workers and public health professionals are examples of first responder professionals. Three sub-groups of responders include local and state police, EMTs and fire fighters.

Your duties depend on the nature of an emergency. If you're an EMT, duties might include administering life support care and first aid, immobilizing injured people for transport and communicating with dispatchers and medical facilities about the quantity and condition of incoming patients. As a fire fighter, you would respond to fire alarms and hazardous materials situations, locate and rescue people from burning buildings, put out fires and administer CPR and first aid. Restoring public order, administering first aid and preventing vandalism or theft might be among your duties as a police officer.

Where Could I Work?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 236,890 people worked as EMTs and paramedics, about 318,790 worked as paid fire fighters and about 653,740 worked as police and sheriff's patrol officers in 2015 (www.bls.gov). Your employer is most likely to be a municipal or county government.

For example, local governments had the highest levels of employment among police officers, sheriff's patrol officers and fire fighters in 2015. EMTs primarily worked for ambulance services, though a small number were also employed by local government agencies and hospitals.

The median annual salary you could have potentially earned in 2015 as a police and sheriff's patrol officer was $58,320. Fire fighters earned $46,870, while EMTs and paramedics earned $31,980.

What Training Will I Need?

To be eligible for the training that accompanies any of the first responder disciplines you need a high school diploma or G.E.D. EMT certificate programs are available from community colleges. Police officers usually receive basic training at a police academy, which in some cases is conducted through a community college. Many departments now require officers to complete some college courses or earn a 2-year associate's degree. Fire fighters traditionally receive training after they're hired, but many applicants are now preparing through college programs, such as an associate's degree in fire science.

EMT programs use a combination of classroom instruction, labs and internships to teach you how to provide initial care on-site to injured or ill people and transport them safely to a medical facility. Course topics include cardiac and respiratory care, anatomy, physiology, patient assessment and pharmacology. Schools may offer programs at a basic and intermediate level.

Law enforcement programs prepare you to project authority, prevent crime and preserve public order. Several of the subjects and skills taught have potential applications in emergency situations, including firearms training, critical decision-making and crisis intervention. Programs convey their content through lab simulations, classroom instruction and practicum courses.

Associate's degree programs in fire science enhance your training in fire protection and suppression. Courses address fire chemistry and physics, building codes, fire equipment and fire fighting tactics. Other courses may include fire rescue, hazardous materials handling and EMT.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

A career as a correctional officer is an alternative for those not interested in becoming a police officer, EMT or firefighter. These officers monitor convicted criminals who are incarcerated as well as individuals awaiting trial. Becoming a security guard is another related career option. Security guards work to prevent theft, protect property from vandalism and deter any other type of illegal activities. Each of these career options only requires a high school diploma for entry.

To continue researching, browse degree options below for course curriculum, prerequisites and financial aid information. Or, learn more about the subject by reading the related articles below:

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