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5 reasons you should NOT become an EMT

Find out if you are on the road to a successful EMS career or on a short trip to burnout


For a job with typically long hours and relatively low pay, you rarely hear about EMS agencies having a shortage of willing applicants. In fact, some might argue that the seemingly endless supply of young, eager EMTs is part of what fuels the low wages and long hours that are often endemic to our job.

The EMS workforce is an interesting bunch. We attract our share of smart, dedicated individuals who are looking to start a career in emergency services or elsewhere in medicine.

We also tend to attract our share of disenchanted nay-sayers. Newly certified EMT’s who quickly transition from wide-eyed newbies to jaded do-nothings, punching the time clock and sleeping through the minimum continuing education requirements.   

The blue Star of Life is a uniform symbol representing EMS. (EMS.gov)
The blue Star of Life is a uniform symbol representing EMS. (EMS.gov)

There are good reasons to enter the EMS workforce and there are some really bad reasons. How can you tell if you are on the road to a long and successful EMS career or on a short trip to frustration and burnout?

Are you trying to decide if a career in EMS is right for you? Here are five perfectly good reasons to NOT become an EMT.

1. You think you’ll look good in the uniform

Some folks get caught up in the image of being an EMT. They can often be spotted by the medical supplies that adorn their uniform belts and the stickers on the backs of their cars. Do you like the idea of being an EMT more than you like the work of being an EMT?

The job of an EMT isn’t about being something. It’s about doing something. An EMT’s work is about service to individuals in need. EMTs who are most successful have an outward focus, not in inward focus.

Doing the work of an EMT often requires a great deal of humility. We often serve people who are angry, drunk and violent. We serve in all kinds of places, at all times of the day and night, when we’re tired, frustrated, and hungry. Regardless of the circumstances, we kneel in front of the patient and ask how we can serve.

When you imagine the job of an EMT, make sure you are focusing on doing the work of an EMT, more than you are focused on being an EMT.

2. You met an EMT at a party and he had the best stories

War stories can be fun. The best war stories give people a unique perspective into the often bizarre world in which we live and work. Sharing the worst war stories is disrespectful to our patients and unprofessional. If we’re not careful, they can even become illegal disclosures of our patients’ private health information.

Understand that war stories often represent the most interesting few minutes of an individual’s career. When we tell our stories, we select the most entertaining and unusual things that we’ve encountered, often giving the impression that our job is filled with non-stop hilarity and adventure.

In truth, our job can be mundane and routine. Nobody ever tells a war story about taking a nursing home patient to a dialysis treatment or waking up at 2 a.m. to help a drunken person vomit into a bucket or help someone’s grandmother back into bed.

The bulk of our duties aren’t exciting or entertaining. They are, however, deeply meaningful to the people whom we serve. If you don’t find meaning in mundane acts of service, this work might not be for you.

3. You want to drive fast

Hollywood movies and TV shows love to portray EMS personnel racing to the scene of an emergency. Our TV counterparts are prone to squealing tires and white-knuckle cornering on their way to scripted emergencies.

Driving an emergency vehicle with lights and sirens operating is quite a bit less thrilling than the big screen makes it seem. Real emergency vehicles are only allowed to exceed the speed limit in specific circumstances and always with due regard for the safety of others.

Emergency vehicle operators are never allowed to demand the right of way or drive in a manner that requires others to act ideally by moving to the right, not pulling into the intersection, and leaving room for us to turn right or left. If EMS personnel do get into an accident with lights and sirens running, they are almost always at fault.

EMTs also learn that the few seconds saved by driving fast are rarely, if ever, meaningful to the patient’s outcome, but the consequences of a single bad decision while driving emergent can ruin a whole career.

4. You think 16 weeks of school is better than four years of college

EMT certification is significantly shorter than the training required for most other jobs in the healthcare industry, making it a popular entry-level position for a variety of medical jobs. But that doesn’t mean that EMT training is a cake walk. Many EMT students quickly realize that they are required to comprehend and retain a larger volume of information than they have been exposed to in the past and they’re required to learn it in a faster time frame than they had imagined. 

Everything being taught in EMT certification is in the 'essential' category and there are no trophies for participation. You learn the information and skills or you don’t pass the certification tests. Many students have to repeat the class two or three times before achieving a passing grade.

EMT training also isn’t over when class is over. Being a good EMT requires a greater discipline for self-directed learning than most jobs in medicine. Your EMT class will give you the bare minimum of knowledge to help you understand the many injuries and illnesses you’ll encounter. The rest of the learning will be up to you and it never ends. If you’re going to be good, you’ll want to keep learning more than the minimum CE requirements.

5. You want to save lives

The idea of "saving lives" is one of the most overused concepts in our industry. Very little of what we do could honestly be categorized as "lifesaving." The big problem with all the noise about being "life savers" and doing lifesaving work is that people get the idea that saving people is what our work is about and it’s not.

If your motivation for becoming an EMT has anything to do with a desire to regularly be thrown into a life or death struggle, where your actions and decisions are the critical factor in determining if someone lives or dies, you’re almost certainly going to burn out fast.

Most of the medical emergencies that EMTs manage aren’t life-threatening and many aren’t even time-critical. If you are coming to EMS to save lives, ask yourself if you will be satisfied applying Band-Aids, preventing dehydration, managing diabetes, protecting people from their own addictions and reckless behavior and giving them rides from where they are to where they need to be.

If you still want to be an EMT, drop the idea of saving lives and get accustomed to the idea of managing people's healthcare needs. To be successful you’ll need to be an advocate for safety (including driving) and a constant learner. You’ll need to forget about the being and master the doing. And when the day is done, have the discretion to only tell the good stories.

But there’s an advantage: If you’re one of those rare individuals who are willing to do all of those things, you’ll find a lifetime of rewarding service in this field. For everything that you have to let go of to be successful, the job will pay you back tenfold in excitement, challenge and reward. You will have to sacrifice and give, but you will witness some of the most precious and sacred moments in our human existence. I wish you luck. 

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