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What you need to know about paramedic school

Becoming a paramedic starts in the classroom

By EMS1 Staff

If you’re thinking about taking the next step in your EMS career and enrolling in paramedic school there are a few important components to consider. It’s much more of a time commitment than EMT school was, but in return, you’ll learn valuable skills, receive a substantial pay increase, and earn more responsibility in the field of patient care.

Paramedic school requirements

Each school will have its own requirements, but you’ll need the following to get into most paramedic programs:

  • EMT certification
  • Proof of CPR certification
  • Immunizations
  • Health insurance
  • Driver’s license
  • Criminal background check and drug screen

Many paramedic programs will interview candidates beforehand to make sure they’re cut out for the course, asking them about their experience, their EMS aspirations, and their personal character. Some programs may also even require candidates to have worked a certain amount of time in EMS before they’re eligible to take paramedic courses.

The paramedic school timeline

Paramedic programs can range from six to eighteen months in length. They’re typically broken up into didactic, clinical, and field internship sections.

The didactic section is where you’ll attend labs and lectures delivered by experienced paramedics. Some programs, such as the paramedic course at Foothill College, will only meet two days a week, but it’ll be a full eight hour day for either lab or lecture. Other schedules will meet multiple times per week but on varying days to work with the schedule of an EMT or firefighter.

Depending on their program’s requirements, paramedics must also accrue 600 to 1200 clinical hours split between sites like the emergency department, pediatric ED or NICU, cath lab, and behavioral/psych unit. In addition, you’ll probably have to perform specific skills (such as intubation) a certain number of times while being supervised by a health care professional.

The field internship will have you working in the back of an ambulance with paramedic (or firefighter-paramedic) preceptors.

After you’ve passed all sections of your course, you’ll be eligible to take the NREMT and become officially certified as a paramedic.

What are the top paramedic schools?

There’s no formal ranking of paramedic schools, and no “Ivy League” schools of EMS. Some programs have a higher national registry pass exam rate and post-grad hiring rate than others, but all paramedic curriculums must meet the official paramedic education standards outlined by the NREMT.

That said, there are some paramedic programs that are nationally recognized for their instructors and clinical opportunities:

  • UCLA’s Daniel Freeman paramedic education program
  • Boston EMS Academy
  • Stony Brook University
  • Austin Community College
  • Tacoma Community College
  • University of Washington

You may also consider taking an online paramedic course. Some people prefer the face-to-face interaction with a good instructor, but if you are self-motivated, driven, and organized, you will still learn the same skills and take as many clinical hours through an online/hybrid program as you would in a traditional class.

Work as an EMT first, or go “zero to hero?”

Many EMS professionals will suggest you spend about a year as a basic EMT before signing up for paramedic school. Some programs won’t even take you without prior EMT experience.

The most compelling reason to work as a basic is to develop the scene management ability you’ll need to be an effective paramedic. You have hundreds of clinical hours to log, but it might be more effective to use that learn ALS skills and leadership rather than fumble through BLS skills.

Some companies and hospital-based systems will also offer to pay for paramedic school if you work for them as an EMT for a certain amount of time. Word of advice: read the fine print. Some of these bonuses sound nice, but if you don’t fulfill your service agreement -- whether that means quitting or getting fired -- you may have to pay everything back out of your own pocket.

Others choose to work as an EMT while going to paramedic school. In fact, some programs offer a paramedic course schedule that works with the rotated/staggered shifts of a fire or EMS department.

All that said, the paramedic school you go to and the experience you had as an EMT will only affect you in the very beginning of your paramedic career. After the first year or two, your trajectory as a medic will depend mostly on your desire to keep up with the profession and grow your base of knowledge.

What are challenges you may face while in paramedic school?

Paramedic students have reported struggling with:

Time management. Each week, you’re going to have to go to class (16 hours), study (suggested: 6 hours), go to clinical rotations at various sites (8 - 36 hours), and probably juggle a job on top of that. Be prepared to put your social life on the backburner and cut out the nonessentials. Paramedic school is not the time to make life-altering decisions such as moving or getting married.

Cardiology. Know how to read an EKG and be able to identify common rhythms. The most commonly recommended resource is Dale Dubin’s Rapid Interpretation of EKGs, but you can also watch YouTube videos to help learn your rhythms.

Drugs and pharmacology. During your clinicals and field internships, you’re not going to be expected to have the scene control of a ten-year paramedic. You will, however, be expected to know your medications forwards and backwards. Flashcards will help you memorize actions, indications, doses, and contraindications.

People skills. If you chose to enter paramedic school without any street experience as an EMT, you might be shy around patients and hospital personnel. This is something you have to get over. Paramedic instructors will help you out if you ask, but you must ask.

As an EMS student, paramedic school will test the limits of your ability. Since it’s such a large commitment, it’s important to know the difference between what’s required by the program and what you can personally deliver, and then to take the steps necessary to close that gap.

EMS 101 articles are intended to educate a non-emergency medical services audience about the emergency medical services profession. These articles are written by EMS1 staff members and EMS1 contributors, and cover a wide range of topics from EMS protocols all paramedics & EMTs should follow to an overview of the necessary requirements for becoming a paramedic.