Becoming a First Responder: Job Description & Salary Info

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Learn about a first responder's job description, salary info and training requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of becoming a first responder.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a First Responder

As a first responder, you'll be one of the first people to arrive and provide medical care at emergency incidents. Read on to discover the pros and cons of becoming a first responder to determine if this is the right career for you.

Pros of Becoming a First Responder
Feeling of pride and satisfaction in knowing you've made a tremendous difference in someone's life*
Fire and police departments offer decent salaries (average annual salaries of about about $49,000 and $59,000, respectively, in May 2014)**
For EMTs and paramedics, higher than average employment growth (over 55,000 additional jobs expected between 2012 and 2022)**
Can get a job with a high school diploma**
Work in a friendly and non-competitive environment***

Cons of Becoming a First Responder
Potentially dangerous work environment (exposure to contagious diseases, traffic accidents, flames and smoke, violent situations)**
Irregular work hours that may include nights and weekends**
Low pay for EMTs and paramedics (average annual salary of about $35,000 as of May 2014)**
Continuing education is required to maintain certification***
Can be physically strenuous and emotionally stressful**

Sources: *The Princeton Review, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***California Employment Development Department.

Essential Career Info

Job Description

First responders, officially called emergency medical responders as of January 1, 2012 (according to the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians), are the people who first arrive to help you after you've dialed 911 for emergency assistance. Once they are on the scene, first responders assess the situation, request additional help when necessary and provide basic first aid, which could include such duties as controlling hemorrhage, bandaging wounds, providing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), assisting in childbirth and taking care of general medical issues and emergencies. The first responder's goal is to provide basic, lifesaving interventions while waiting for additional emergency response assistance to arrive. In addition to providing medical care, first responders also work to stabilize the incident scene, protect property and, in cases of criminal activity, preserve evidence. The term 'first responder' refers to a level of emergency response training. People holding this title include firefighters, police officers, search and rescue professionals, emergency medical service workers and hazardous materials personnel, to name a few.

The role of the first responder is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding. You'll frequently encounter dangerous situations, including highway accident scenes, flames and toxic smoke, collapsing buildings, crime scenes and hazardous materials spills. The work is often physically strenuous, including a large amount of kneeling, bending and heavy lifting. You may face stressful situations, such as uncooperative, upset or deceased victims. Also, as a first responder, you'll be responding to emergencies that can occur at any time. Therefore, you can expect to work irregular hours that might include weekends, nights and holidays.

Career Options

As mentioned above, the terms 'first responder' and 'emergency medical responder' refer to the level of training that certifies emergency personnel to provide basic medical care that is somewhere between first aid and basic emergency medical technician (EMT) care. Most first responders work have additional job titles, such as firefighter, law enforcement officer, EMT or paramedic. Some first responders hold two or more designations; for example, a firefighter can also be an EMT. In addition, you'll find first responders working in search and rescue, hazardous materials and explosives units. If you like the idea of overseeing large-scale emergency incident responses, you could, take on a managerial role, such as an emergency management director, with some additional education and local government experience.

Salary Info and Job Prospects

If you value job security, your best choice for working as a first responder might be to become an EMT or paramedic. Due to the aging population, accidents and natural disasters, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates that EMTs and paramedics will experience a 23% increase in employment between 2012 and 2022, which translates to over 55,000 additional job openings. Yet, the mean annual pay for an EMT or paramedic in May 2014, as reported by the BLS, was only about $35,000.

First responders can earn more working as police officers or firefighters. In May 2014, the BLS reported their average salaries to be about $59,000 and $49,000, respectively. However, both police officers and firefighters are expected to experience below-average job growth between 2012 and 2022. While the BLS anticipates an 11% increase in employment across all occupations, it predicts just 5% for police officers and 7% for firefighters.

Education Requirements

To become a first responder, you'll need to successfully complete a first responder training course that adheres to the national curriculum standards set by the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). You can take an NHSTA first responder course through state government agencies, universities and colleges, fire departments and emergency rescue professional organizations. In addition, the American Red Cross offers a course called 'Emergency Medical Response' that can prepare you to work as a first responder.

To be eligible to respond to 911 calls, you'll probably need further training to become a firefighter, police officer, EMT or paramedic (in addition to the first responder course). All four jobs require a high school diploma, valid drivers license and the appropriate formal training. Following is additional information about the education and training requirements for these typical first responder careers.


Firefighters undergo extensive instructional and practical training in areas such as firefighting techniques, hazardous materials control and emergency medical procedures. There are two levels of firefighter training, and a community might require their firefighters to attain the second level. Some firefighters also have postsecondary certificates or degrees in fire science. You'll need to pass a medical examination and several written and physical tests. Many fire departments require their firefighters to hold EMT certifications.

Police Officers

Police offers also go through a specialized training academy followed by on-the-job training. Some police departments require a postsecondary degree. In most cases, you'll need to be a U.S. citizen and at least 21 years old to work as a police officer.


There are two levels of training for EMTs: basic and advanced. In EMT-basic training, you'll take about 100 hours of training in such areas as assessing medical conditions, handling trauma and cardiac emergencies and clearing obstructed airways. Alternatively, you can take advanced-level EMT training. In this 1,000-hour program, you'll learn everything that's required in basic, plus more advanced practices, such as inserting intravenous catheters, obtaining blood samples and administering some medications. Sometimes, the advanced training is split into two levels: EMT-Intermediate 1985 and EMT-Intermediate 1999. All states require every EMT to have a license, although the requirements to get the license vary from state to state. You can also get an optional EMT certification from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) or, in some cases, from your state government.


To be a paramedic, you'll need to complete the advanced-level of EMT training plus additional education in such skills as suturing wounds, using electrocardiograms and administering intravenous medications. The training to become a paramedic consists of about 1300 hours of instruction beyond the EMT-advanced level, and it may take up to two years to complete. Like EMTs, paramedics can get state or NREMT certification, and they must hold a state license.

Job Postings from Employers Looking for First Responders

First responders serve in various roles, but there are a few consistent qualifications that employers look for. First, almost every first responder job requires a high school diploma or equivalent and first responder training. Some employers prefer candidates with associate's or bachelor's degrees. Second, most jobs require a certain level of physical fitness. Finally, many job requirements include a valid drivers license. Following are a few descriptions of actual job openings that employers posted in April 2012.

  • A fire department in Indiana sought a new employee to serve as both a firefighter and EMT or paramedic. The posting specified the following requirements: U.S. citizenship, at least a high school diploma or equivalent and valid state driver's license. The employer also wanted applicants between the ages of 21 and 36 years old, unless they were already members of the Indiana police officers' and firefighters' pension fund. Ideal candidates would have certification at both the Firefighter II and paramedic levels. The employer was willing to pay more to anyone with a paramedic certification, associate's degree in fire science or any 4-year degree.
  • A military base in Oklahoma advertised for a police officer to perform the full range of police duties. In addition to the relevant police-specific knowledge, skills and abilities, applicants needed to have a high school diploma or equivalent. The job posting also stated that a pre-employment medical examination was necessary. If hired, the new employee would need to undergo first responder training if they hadn't already done it.
  • A hospital in Atlanta, GA, needed an EMT with at least a high school diploma or equivalent and NREMT-basic or Georgia EMT-basic certification. Applicants also needed to have a valid state driver's license, American Heart Association basic life support certification and the ability to lift a minimum of 200 pounds with assistance from another person.

How to Stand out as a First Responder

Upgrade and Expand Your Skills

Whether you're a firefighter, police officer, EMT or paramedic, upgrading and expanding your skills can be an effective strategy for advancing your career as a first responder. For firefighters, the BLS recommends getting some postsecondary education or advanced medical response training. A postsecondary degree can help police officers get an edge, and, according to the BLS, mastery of a second language can be useful as well. For EMTs and paramedics, the California Employment Development Department recommends getting advanced education and certifications.

Get Certified

Not all states require you to get a certification in order to be licensed, but holding one might help EMTs and paramedics enjoy better career advancement and employment opportunities, according to The Princeton Review. The NREMT offers first responder, EMT and paramedic certifications across five levels. Some state governments offer certifications, too. You'll probably need to take an exam to get the certification and then take continuing education courses to keep it.

Other Careers to Consider

Licensed Practical Nurse

If the stressful nature and dangerous hazards of working as a first responder don't appeal to you, but you want to work in basic medical care, you might consider becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN). They provide such services as administering basic nursing care, monitoring patients' health and discussing health care concerns in homes, hospitals, facilities and office settings. You can get the job by completing a 1-year accredited program from a technical school or community college and passing a licensure exam. In May 2011, the BLS stated that, as an LPN or LVN, you could expect to earn about $42,000 on average yearly. The BLS also anticipated a 22% increase in LPN and LVN jobs between 2010 and 2020.

Police, Fire and Ambulance Dispatcher

If you want to work in a first responder role without the strenuous physical efforts and dangerous work environment, you might consider becoming a dispatcher. When someone calls 911, he or she explains the emergency to a dispatcher, who then assesses the situation and determines the appropriate response. Dispatchers send out the firefighters, police officers and ambulances to emergencies, and, if needed, provide medical assistance and support over the phone while the responders are en route. You can become a dispatcher with just a high school diploma or equivalent (some additional training may be needed) and earn about $37,000 on average yearly, according to the BLS's May 2011 statistics.

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