What It’s Like to Be an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)

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Two medical students talk about their experiences as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and how it prepared them for medical school.

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Christina Houser
Undergraduate: Tulane University, Class of 2012
Major: Anthropology and public health
Medical School: Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Class of 2016



Kyle Curtis
Undergraduate: Bates College, Class of 2007
Major: English literature and creative writing
Post-baccalaureate: University of Vermont
Medical School: Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Class of 2016

What does an EMT do?

Christina: EMTs are health care professionals who work on ambulances to respond to 911 calls. Emergency calls can range from lifethreatening issues, such as cardiac arrests or gun shot wounds, to minor complaints, such as sore throats or sprained ankles. These calls bring EMTs to a wide variety of locations, including patients’ homes, businesses, and even out on the street. Once on scene with the patient, EMTs efficiently treat any life-threating issues, such as difficulty breathing or major bleeding. Subsequently, they discern the major health complaint through meticulous completion of a history and physical exam. Depending on level of training, EMTs may intubate patients in the field, acquire and read an EKG, and treat patients with myriad medications while en route to the hospital.

Kyle: In rural areas, EMTs are a crucial link between the hospital and a widely distributed population. In urban areas, EMTs act in concert with police and firefighters to coordinate life-saving care with major hospital centers.

How do EMTs interact with other health professions workers?

Christina: In the field, EMTs work closely with firefighters and police. Firefighters are wonderful assets to EMTs as they assist with difficult extractions on the scene of motor vehicle collisions and can also provide medical care to the patient should the EMS unit require additional assistance. Once the team has arrived at the hospital, EMTs interact directly with nurses and emergency medical physicians to transfer patient care. EMTs provide doctors and nurses with vital background information on the patient by relaying pertinent history and physical exam findings.

What was it like to work as an EMT?

Christina: Working as an EMT is extremely rewarding. EMTs have incredibly personal interactions with patients and their families. Moreover, you have a phenomenal ability to have a positive impact in your community and to truly serve those in need.

How do you become an EMT?

Kyle: There are several different levels of training:

1. Basic EMT (also called EMT-B). This is an entry-level position where you learn basic life-saving skills and health care knowledge required to provide pre-hospital care. People at this level are typically paired with a higher-level provider (EMT-I or paramedic) in ambulances, on fire trucks, or in the emergency department. Certification requires at least 154 hours of classroom and practical education. Many colleges will offer one-month, three-month, or semester-long courses that allow you to become trained and certified.

2. Intermediate/Enhanced EMT (also called EMT-I). This is an intermediate position that does not exist in all states, but it expands the scope of practice for the EMT-B with more skills, medications, and knowledge. It requires basic EMT training and some experience in the field.

3. Paramedic (also called EMT-P). This is the most advanced pre-hospital provider. EMT-Ps have a broad health care knowledge and an advanced life-saving skill set. This training often requires at least 700 hours of classroom training, as well as a significant amount of experience in the field, but medics can work in any setting, including airborne (helicopter) and wilderness EMS.

Christina: It usually costs approximately $500–$1,000 to become a Basic EMT, plus the cost of testing and certification. However, many employers and/or universities will cover all costs if you have arranged to work or volunteer for them after you complete your training.

Is this a paid or volunteer position?

Kyle: There are paid positions available for EMTs, but these are often full-time jobs with private ambulance services or fire departments that require dual training in firefighting. Particularly for EMT-Bs, the best positions for those interested in medical school are volunteer based, in my opinion, such as those with a local volunteer fire department or with your college EMS organization.

What is the time commitment?

Christina: Most pre-med students volunteer or work as part-time EMTs, which requires a minimum of two to four 12-hour shifts per month. Full-time employees work closer to fifteen 12-hour shifts per month. When considering volunteer versus paid work, note that volunteering is always a positive for medical school applications.

Many universities have their own student-run EMS service, which affords you the opportunity to coordinate your class and EMS schedule so that you can adequately balance both commitments. Some of the larger collegiate EMS groups are staffed 24/7 and operate multiple ambulances daily, which requires a more significant time commitment. When I volunteered with Tulane EMS, students volunteered for anywhere from 3 to 20 shifts per month, depending on their rank within the organization.

Kyle: The characteristics of each EMT position are highly variable, but at Bates College, our EMS unit had 24-hour shifts where you carried a radio and responder pack. During that period, you responded to all calls (even if they happened during class!) and provided care as needed to students, faculty, staff, and visitors on campus. Depending on how many EMTs we had available, we typically completed between 12 and 20 shifts per semester, or about two to three per month; the commitment was significant, but certainly not prohibitive, and did not interfere with my other time commitments.

Many private ambulance services also have 12- or 24-hour shifts, but these positions are better suited for full-time (40+ hours/week) or part-time employment over the summer, as they require a significant time commitment.

How did your experience help prepare you for applying to and starting medical school?

Christina: Volunteering as an EMT for Tulane and New Orleans EMS was the most influential experience that I had prior to medical school. As an EMT, I had the opportunity to perfect the basics of collecting a patient history and performing a physical exam, a necessity for any type of physician. Working as an EMT taught me how to excel in high-pressure situations, making medical school tasks ranging from taking exams to scrubbing into various surgeries much easier.

Kyle: More and more medical schools are requiring EMT training, often provided to students in the summer prior to matriculation, because it is an excellent way to introduce students to the basics of health care.

Would you suggest aspiring medical students become EMTs before applying or matriculating to medical school?

Christina: EMS will give you the medical skills you need to excel during your clinical rotations and provide an outstanding foundation of knowledge for your pre-clinical years. Additionally, it fosters a great sense of leadership and teamwork and cultivates a passion for serving the community through medicine.

Kyle: Becoming an EMT is a great way to test out whether you are suited for health care. The mix of high-stress, highacuity work with routine, low-stress work is very common in health care, and EMT training allows you to experience both extremes (and the middle ground, of course) before committing to eight or more years of medical training. It also indoctrinates you to many of the basic tenets of health care: the language of medicine, rapid assessment and planning, physical examination techniques, note writing, patient confidentiality, maintaining composure under pressure, and so on. For those reasons, I highly recommend EMT training for any students who think they might be interested in medicine, because it is an excellent distillation of the knowledge, skills, and mindset required to become a doctor.

What advice do you have for someone interested in becoming an EMT?

Christina: If you want to work or volunteer as an EMT during college, start your training as early as possible. Additionally, if you are interested in volunteering for a university-run EMS group, make sure you are applying to a good program with high call volume, multiple ambulances, and the ability to train you well. Finally, try to volunteer for larger city or county EMS groups as well; they typically have very interesting patients as well as experienced paramedics who can teach you a great deal.

Kyle: I would suggest seeking out the EMS organization in your state as well as any student organizations at your college or contacting your local volunteer fire department. Nothing quite beats the feeling of riding in the back of an ambulance with its sirens blazing heading toward the worst day of someone’s life, knowing that you have the knowledge, skills, and dedicated team members to help that person.

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