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What is an EMT?

Working as an EMT is a demanding and fast-paced career that you can jump into quickly.

emergency medical technicians helping patient with oxygen mask
Home » Specialties » Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)

EMT At a Glance

  • What you’ll do: Respond to medical emergencies and provide basic medical care and life support
  • Where you’ll work: Private ambulance companies, hospitals, fire departments
  • Degree you’ll need: State-approved EMT program, certification, and licensure
  • Median annual salary: $36,650

Every year there are more than 4 million people in America who need medical attention after a car crash. That might sound like a large number, but it’s just a tiny fraction of the number of Americans cared for by emergency medical technicians (EMTs) each year. EMTs are medical professionals who treat their patients on the scene of medical emergencies, accidents, crimes, and more. They act quickly to stabilize patients and think critically to determine if patients should be transported to a medical facility. They provide medical care during transport to keep patients stable and safe.

A job as an EMT is fast-paced and requires skills, knowledge, and dedication. Every shift will bring different patients and different medical emergencies. You’ll be a first responder who reports to the scene of a crisis and helps manage the situation. You’ll be saving lives and making a difference. If that all sounds appealing, an EMT career might be a great fit for you. Plus, you can train to be an EMT in as little as a month. It’s a great way to join the medical field without years of schooling. To advance your career, you can take additional courses to work as an advanced EMT or paramedic.

Steps to Becoming an EMT

Training for an EMT career is one of the fastest ways to join the medical field. You can start to work as an EMT in a few quick steps.

  1. Have or obtain a high school diploma or equivalent.

    An EMT program will require that you’ve earned a high school diploma or equivalent before you can enroll.

  2. Have or obtain your CPR certification.

    You’ll need to earn CPR certification before you can enroll in a program. You can find CPR training in your area through your local American Red Cross chapter.

  3. Find a state-approved EMT program.

    EMT programs are offered at community colleges, emergency services providers, fire stations, local Red Cross chapters, and more. To earn your EMT license, the program you select will need to be approved by your state.

  4. Earn your EMT basic certification.

    You’ll take a basic EMT certification exam from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians or your state.

  5. Apply for your EMT license.

    You can apply for licensure in your state once you’ve passed your certification exam.

What Do EMTs Do?

EMTs respond to emergency medical calls. They provide any necessary immediate care, including life-saving interventions such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). When a patient needs to be taken to a hospital for further treatment, they provide the medical services needed to keep that patient stable during transport.

“Common calls are for transferring patients—who are often in crisis—between psychiatric hospitals, long-term care facilities, and private residences,” explains Steve Roberts, the operations manager for Lynx Emergency Medical Services in Ohio.

Tasks EMTs take on include:

  • Performing CPR
  • Taking any relevant vitals such as blood sugar, oxygen levels, blood pressure, and pulse
  • Bandaging and caring for wounds
  • Performing any needed first-aid or other care
  • Determining if the patient needs care at a hospital or another medical facility
  • Transporting a patient safely to an emergency room or other medical facility
  • Ensuring the patient is receiving any needed oxygen during transport
  • Reporting the patient’s condition and any care given to the receiving medical staff
  • Documenting care given
  • Ensuring supplies are well-stocked and vehicles cleaned

Other tasks will vary depending on your state, certification level, and employer. For instance, in some states, EMTs are able to drive ambulances. No matter where you work, a shift as an EMT is unpredictable because it will depend on the calls you receive. Some shifts will be demanding and fast-paced, while others will be slower. 

The extent of an EMT’s tasks vary depending on the state. In some states, EMTs are able to drive ambulances.

“A typical day for me is clocking in, getting my devices together, checking in with everyone, and [ensuring] that all items are stocked up for the day,” says Roberts. “Once that is all complete, we wait until the first call rolls in, and we begin working from there. Some days we get many calls and some days we do not; it just depends on the day.”

Where Do They Work?

Private ambulance companies are one of the most common workplaces for EMTs, but they’re not the only place you can find employment in this exciting career. For example, many EMTs find work with hospitals, fire departments, and rescue service providers. With the right certification, you could find work on a medical transport helicopter as part of a rescue flight crew. Your career could also take you beyond medical and rescue service settings. Other spots EMTs can find work include:

Private companies:

Many private companies employ EMTs so that care is available quickly in an emergency. Companies that employ EMTs are generally businesses that attract large crowds. This includes amusement parks, cruise ships, resorts, shopping complexes, zoos, and more.

Manufacturing plants and factories:

Businesses with a large number of employees such as plants and factories often hire EMTs to provide onsite emergency care.

Oil rigs:

Workers who spend all their time on the water are generally far from hospitals and other medical services. EMTs can find work on oil rigs to provide care when other medical services aren’t available.

EMT vs. Paramedic: What’s the Difference?

EMTs and paramedics often work together, and many people assume the titles are interchangeable. They actually refer to two distinct medical care roles. A paramedic has more advanced training and can perform more medical tasks than an EMT.

“The main difference between the two is the level of education and procedures that they’re allowed to perform,” says Roberts. “EMTs can administer CPR, glucose, and oxygen. Paramedics can perform more specialized procedures such as inserting IV lines, administering drugs, and cardiac pacing.”

EMTsParamedics
Time to Complete:Can complete training in as little as a month in some statesComplete a two-year training program
Prerequisites:Need a GED and CPR certification before enrolling in a programNeed EMT certification before enrolling in a program
Courses:Have education in emergency life-saving measuresHave advanced education in anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, and psychology
Duties:Provide basic life-saving careProvide advanced life-saving care

Important Skills and Traits

An EMT career can be demanding and fast-paced. It’s not a good fit for people who need routine in their daily job. However, if you’re looking for a fulfilling career and don’t mind when days are unpredictable, you might thrive as an EMT.

“Patience is a significant trait to have while working as an EMT,” says Roberts. “You also need to be flexible and remain calm in stressful situations. Being an EMT means that you will run into chaotic problems, and you have to possess the skills to be relaxed, personable, and in control of your own emotions. You also need to be a team player and have a positive attitude.”

A good EMT will be patient, flexible, and able to handle chaotic situations.

As is the case with many healthcare careers, a job as an EMT will keep you moving throughout your day. You’ll need to take care of your physical health because a busy shift can often feel like a workout. Additionally, because you’ll provide care for victims of traumatic events such as car accidents and crimes, you’ll need to make sure you have mental health support and tools.

“The job is more physically demanding than one might think,” Roberts explains. “You lift and carry your patients a lot, and it can be physically challenging.”

He also emphasized the emotional toll that EMTs can face. “Many might not know that the potential for emotional trauma from being an EMT is very high. Some EMTs suffer from depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more. It is crucial to be aware of your mental health, especially when caring for yourself and others,” he says.

EMT Education, Licensure, and Certification

You’ll need to be at least 18 with a high school diploma before beginning any EMT program. Most programs will also ask that you pass a criminal background check and that you’re already certified in CPR before you enroll. While it’s generally not a requirement, it can help if you’ve taken high school-level courses in anatomy and biology.

All states require licensure for EMTs. Some states use their own exams to test for licensure, but in most states, earning a license requires taking an exam and earning certification from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT). Keep in mind that while it’s easy to confuse the two terms, certification and licensure are different credentials. That means your state license that allows you to work as an EMT is different than your NREMT certification.

There are currently 18 states that use their own EMT exam process and don’t require credentials through NREMT:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia
  • Washington

Your educational program will let you know the exact requirements in your state. Even if NREMT certification isn’t required for licensure in your state, it’s still a good idea to earn certification. It can make your application stand out to employers and could help you later in your career, especially if you move.

There are two basic levels of NREMT certification, and the educational requirements are different for each:

Basic EMT Certification


  • What it is: An entry-level certification that will allow you to work as an EMT
  • Time to complete: 150 hours that can generally be completed in one to three months
  • Program prerequisites: A high school diploma, CPR certification, a criminal background check
  • Program curriculum: Emergency response, patient assessment, trauma response, cardiac emergency care, use of medical equipment, basic life-saving skills
  • Exam prep: The EMT exam consists of a computer-based written test and a psychomotor skills test. The written test has between 70 and 120 questions and includes patient care topics covered in your program. The skills test will require you to demonstrate your ability to perform tasks such as patient assessment, cardiac care, injury stabilization, and oxygen administration.

Advanced EMT Certification (AEMT)


  • What it is: The AEMT certificate shows you have taken additional classes and mastered more advanced EMT skills.
  • Time to complete: 400 hours that can generally be completed in two to four months
  • Program prerequisites: A current Basic EMT certification from NREMT or a basic EMT license from your state
  • Program curriculum: Medical equipment use, intravenous fluids, advanced cardiac care, advanced life-saving skills, ventilation, obstetrics, and gynecology
  • Exam prep: The advanced EMT certification exam consists of a computer-based written test and a psychomotor skills test. The written test has 135 questions and covers the patient care topics covered in your program. The skills test will require you to demonstrate skills taught in your program such as intravenous fluid needle placement and cardiac care.

What is EMR Certification?


Emergency Medical Responder (EMR) certification is another credential offered by NREMT. This certification requires much less training than the basic or advanced EMT certification. EMR certification is not a separate job or classification for EMTs. It’s intended for professionals who might need to know basic life-saving and emergency response methods as part of their job. For example, first responders such as police officers and firefighters often earn EMR certification so they can provide immediate care before an ambulance arrives. 

About Recertification

Both EMTs and advanced EMTs need to renew their certifications every two years. You can submit proof of continuing education courses or take an online recertification exam from NREMT. EMTs need 20 hours of continuing education every two years. Advanced EMTs need 25 hours. Your state might have additional recertification requirements.

Can I Train to be an EMT Online?

Online programs are available and may be a good option for people who are working while going to school, have family responsibilities, or live far from a training center. However, these EMT programs are actually hybrid models that include both online coursework and in-person skills training. Since being an EMT is a very hands-on career, you can’t complete an entire EMT program online.

The availability of online programs depends on your state and local area. When you’re looking at EMT programs, it’s important to make sure they’re approved by your state. You won’t be able to take a state or NREMT exam if your educational program isn’t approved by your state.

Salary

Your salary will depend on your certification level, experience, and local area. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups EMTs and paramedics together for its salary data.

Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics

National data

Median Salary: $36,650

Bottom 10%: $24,650

Top 10%: $62,150

Projected job growth: 11%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $28,790 $20,060 $44,780
Alaska $50,110 $27,960 $67,470
Arizona $34,840 $25,610 $52,350
Arkansas $31,870 $22,370 $50,210
California $42,980 $28,500 $75,240
Colorado $38,750 $25,570 $64,830
Connecticut $43,950 $30,080 $64,840
Delaware $40,440 $32,730 $66,770
District of Columbia $41,040 $32,800 $73,100
Florida $33,660 $22,480 $51,970
Georgia $34,700 $22,220 $50,630
Hawaii $57,320 $42,010 $81,110
Idaho $38,920 $24,480 $66,040
Illinois $35,070 $22,880 $104,830
Indiana $34,280 $25,220 $51,010
Iowa $36,490 $24,130 $55,080
Kansas $29,470 $17,780 $48,740
Kentucky $30,860 $20,920 $46,620
Louisiana $36,450 $23,400 $57,200
Maine $32,690 $25,430 $47,440
Maryland $47,830 $32,880 $81,050
Massachusetts $40,890 $30,250 $71,640
Michigan $32,280 $22,260 $49,740
Minnesota $40,830 $28,440 $64,130
Mississippi $31,010 $19,960 $47,980
Missouri $35,360 $23,540 $58,200
Montana $32,050 $22,960 $48,850
Nebraska $36,110 $25,960 $54,560
Nevada $38,260 $25,600 $66,510
New Hampshire $36,490 $23,350 $58,880
New Jersey $36,950 $27,880 $61,400
New Mexico $35,240 $24,130 $53,870
New York $44,210 $28,660 $70,410
North Carolina $36,790 $25,990 $52,300
North Dakota $34,910 $19,130 $61,450
Ohio $33,550 $22,520 $49,560
Oklahoma $35,380 $21,700 $52,680
Oregon $41,220 $27,340 $64,100
Pennsylvania $33,080 $22,410 $52,330
Rhode Island $40,160 $32,580 $63,000
South Carolina $34,180 $25,290 $49,670
South Dakota $32,280 $22,610 $46,080
Tennessee $36,840 $24,680 $58,490
Texas $35,940 $21,730 $55,260
Utah $33,570 $23,140 $57,560
Vermont $36,150 $27,740 $47,740
Virginia $34,840 $25,430 $51,240
Washington $44,970 $29,120 $103,060
West Virginia $28,600 $20,650 $41,110
Wisconsin $34,110 $21,620 $56,810
Wyoming $35,870 $21,870 $52,360

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2020 median salary; projected job growth through 2030. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

Survey data published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services indicates that on average, your salary will go up with your level of education and training. Advanced EMTs reported higher salaries than basic EMTs, and paramedics reported higher salaries than either type of EMT.

Where you live can make a big impact on your salary. You can check out the highest paying cities for EMTs in the table below, according to the BLS.

Metro AreaEMT Salary
Olympia-Tumwater, Washington$83,930
Mount Vernon-Anacortes, Washington$74,170
Bellingham, Washington$65,850
Bremerton-Silverdale, Washington$61,820
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington$59,380
Hammond, Louisiana$59,130
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, California$58,880
Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, California$58,400
Urban Honolulu, Hawaii$58,160
Salinas, California$56,750

EMT Outlook

The BLS predicts a 6% growth in EMT roles by 2029, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon. The medical emergencies and accidents that require EMT assistance are an unfortunate part of life, and that means EMTs can count on job security for years to come.

“There will always be a need for EMTs because emergencies, such as car crashes, natural disasters, and acts of violence will continue to require those needed EMT skills,” Roberts says. “Plus, residents at senior living places need transportation to get to the hospital and back because they are unable to transport themselves.”

An EMT role can also provide a great foundation for other medical careers. Many EMTs choose to earn additional education and become paramedics. You could also use the medical skills and experience you’ve gained in this role as a foundation for another healthcare educational program such as a licensed practice nursing program.

No matter what path you take in the future, pursuing an EMT license is a great way to jump into an important medical career.

stephanie behring

Written and reported by:
Stephanie Behring
Contributing Writer

steve roberts

With professional insight from:
Steve Roberts
Operations Manager, Lynx EMS