Want to Save Lives? Here’s How to Become a Paramedic

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
April 15, 2024 at 6:54PM UTC
If you do well in high-pressure situations, enjoy science, want to help people on a daily basis and thrive on adrenaline, being a paramedic could be an excellent career choice for you. Should you choose to go down this road, it's important to understand that it requires significant commitment. Those who want to become paramedics need to be ready for intense certification, training and licensure requirements. After all, it's their job to save lives — so not just anyone is suited for this intense but rewarding career. Think it's for you? Here's how to become a paramedic.

What does a paramedic do?

In short, paramedics save lives. Typically, paramedics:
  • Respond to 911 calls, providing emergency medical assistance (such as first-aid treatment or life support care) to sick and/or injured patients.
  • Provide an on-site assessment of a patient's condition.
  • Transport patients to emergency departments at hospitals and other medical facilities as needed.
  • Provide emotional support to patients in crisis.
As the most highly trained classification of emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics provide more sophisticated pre-hospital care than other EMTs do. For example, they may administer medication, interpret diagnostic results and operate complex medical equipment. Paramedics are also trained to perform advanced respiratory procedures that other EMTs may not know.
In the context of a rescue team, paramedics are often the team leader. This means they have the most decision-making power and are responsible for leading the team's efforts. Consequently, paramedics need to stay calm and collected in stressful situations and have the leadership ability to keep those around them focused when the stakes are high.
Paramedics work in all conditions and all environments (after all, you never know where someone might fall ill and require assistance). Most career paramedics are in metropolitan areas; small cities, towns and rural areas often have volunteer EMTs and paramedics.

What is the difference between a paramedic and an EMT?

Within the hierarchy of emergency care services, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) are lower on the food chain than paramedics. While EMTs are entry-level patient care providers who provide basic life support services, paramedics are the most highly-trained emergency care providers who provide the most complex life support services. 
UCLA's Center for Prehospital Care notes that the biggest differences between EMTs and paramedics come down to training hours and the types of care they can provide. While EMTs complete 120-150 hours of training, paramedics complete 1,200-1,800 hours. Additionally, while EMTs generally aren't allowed to provide treatments that require breaking the skin, paramedics are trained to administer medications, start IV lines, provide advanced airway management for patients and revive and support patients with traumas, heart attacks and other life-threatening problems.

What qualifications do you need to become a paramedic?

The list of requirements for becoming a paramedic is extensive. It includes education, training and certification requirements.

1. Complete EMT basic training (EMT-B).

Successful completion of EMT basic training (EMT-B) is the first step toward becoming a paramedic. These training programs, which are offered at technical institutes and community colleges, usually entail 120-150 hours of coursework. They vary in length from six months to two years.

Students in an EMT-B training program learn the basic skills for EMTs. These include learning how to perform patient assessments, how to handle emergency situations and how to use field equipment. Students also become CPR-certified, either as a prerequisite of the program or during the program itself.

In some cases, there are prerequisite requirements for EMT-B programs. Where prerequisites exist, they generally consist of college-level biology, math, and English courses.

2. Pass a licensing exam and background check.

After completing EMT-B training, EMTs and paramedics must pass either a state or national licensing exam and background check in order to receive licenses to work. Candidates have three attempts to pass the EMT-B licensing exam. If a student doesn't pass on their third try, they might be required to undergo remedial training.

3. Work as an EMT for a few years.

Generally speaking, most people work as EMTs for a few years to gain experience before undergoing additional training to become a paramedic. In fact, some paramedic programs require applicants to have worked as EMTs for at least six months before they'll even consider them. Additionally, all paramedic programs require prospective students to be certified as EMT-Bs.

4. Enroll in — and complete — a well-regarded paramedic program.

Depending on where you're located, paramedic training may be either vocational (meaning that training is provided on the job) or formal (meaning that two- or four-year degrees from formal educational institutions are required). Find out the requirements for the state you're interested in working in as a paramedic, and choose a training or educational program accordingly. Often, paramedics will complete over 1,000 hours of training to earn an associate's or bachelor's degree in paramedic studies.
Regardless of the type of program, paramedic training will likely combine classroom and in-field training. Over the course of their programs, paramedic trainees study anatomy, physiology, advanced life support, basic trauma support and more to improve the care they can offer in the field. As part of their training, paramedic trainees also complete clinical rotations in health care settings (e.g. hospitals or medical clinics).

5. Pass the paramedic (EMT-P) certification exam within two years of completing training.

After completing paramedic training, aspiring paramedics must take another licensing exam in order to receive their EMT-P paramedic licenses. It's important to note that paramedics must apply for and successfully obtain their paramedic certification within two years of completing a paramedic training course.

6. Keep your license current.

Passing the certification exam to become a paramedic exam isn't the end of a paramedic's interaction with the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (the licensing authority for all EMTs and paramedics). Both EMTs and paramedics must re-register with the NREMT every two years in order to keep their certificates current.

7. Participate in any state-required continuing education.

Vocational Training HQ cautions that some states require paramedics (and EMTs) to complete continuing education classes to keep their license and certification current. If this is the case in your state, be sure to stay on top of these requirements.

Do paramedics get paid well?

While one might expect paramedics' pay to be astronomically high given the rigors and importance of their job, the reality is that their median annual wage isn't particularly high as compared to that of other medical professions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for EMTs and paramedics was only $34,320 per year as of May 2018. 

For comparison, physicians and surgeons' median pay was over $208,000 per year in the same time period, while registered nurses' median pay was $71,730.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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