You Want To Become A Firefighter – Should You Become A Paramedic?

Aug. 5, 2004
Many students go to paramedic school thinking it'll be a quick ticket to the career; for some it's not the case.

Becoming a firefighter is not an easy task. Thousands of people lined up to take a test for a fire department that was only going to have a couple of job openings over the life of the list (if even that sometimes). I remember it so clearly. 3,000 people for one job. 5,000 people for 10 jobs, 4,000 people just so a fire department can establish a hiring list (but with no anticipation of hiring anyone). The list goes on and on. It was very intimidating at first seeing all of those people lined up and realizing I had to compete against all of them. It took me a while to figure it out, but I eventually did: I wasn't competing against them, I was competing against myself! I had nobody to blame except for myself if I did not get hired.

It did not take long to realize that those departments that were requiring candidates to be licensed as a paramedic (which more and more departments were starting to do in the early 1990's), even in the Bay Area, were getting less than 100 applicants every time they tested! Some departments were getting less than 50 applicants, and some as few as 10 to 20 applicants! If I really wanted to increase my odds of getting hired as a firefighter, I needed to become a paramedic.

When I began the process of becoming a firefighter, most of the firefighters I talked to all advised me to just go to the community college that has the fire technology program, and then get your EMT and your Firefighter 1 academy certificates and that should be all you need to get hired. Well, I soon found out that what worked had for them when they got hired, was probably not going to work for me; I was going to do that and more! When a buddy of mine graduated with our four-year degrees from the local State University, we knew we wanted to become firefighters and started to draw out our plan of action after having conversations with various firefighters.

We knew that we would have to get our EMT certificate and Firefighter 1 certificate as soon as possible, so that we would be able to take more entry-level firefighter examinations (since that is what many of the Bay Area agencies were requiring to test). We knew we would also need to get our two-year degrees in Fire Technology as well, to help show our commitment to the fire service as well as our motivation. Our four year degrees were something we were proud of, but we also knew that some candidates did not have that level of education and we did not want to stand out too much and be considered as "over-educated" college boys that wanted to go straight to fire chief after probation.

That is why we knew we also had to get our two year degrees in Fire Technology. We also knew that if we didn't get hired after receiving our EMT and Firefighter 1 academy certificates that we better bite the bullet and go to paramedic school. Obviously we were taking every test we qualified for and hoping we could get hired without becoming a paramedic. Not that we didn't want to become paramedics, we didn't want to endure another year or more of intense schooling. Don't get me wrong, it's not that we mind running EMS calls, however given the choice, I think we both would rather fight fire than run EMS calls (and that is probably true for many candidates that end up going to paramedic school).

This is where the problem begins for many future paramedic students. Many of them (like myself) go into paramedic school thinking it will be a quick and easy ticket into the fire service. Yes and no. Yes, your odds will greatly increase at getting into the fire service because you are a paramedic. No, because many students that go into paramedic school know that it is an easy ticket and do it just to become firefighters. I was one of those people. I went to paramedic school to become a firefighter. I will admit it.

However I soon realized that I wasn't going to get spoon fed the information and that I was going to have to work at becoming a paramedic. When it was all said and done, I still feel that paramedic school was tougher than going through and completing my four-year degree at California State University at Hayward! It was especially tough because I did not have a lot of experience working as an EMT to fall back on. I had no past experience working on an ambulance and I think it really hurt me and made me work harder than I probably should have. It makes sense now, when I look back at the situation: how did I expect to be a good paramedic, if I had never learned to become an excellent EMT? We're taught to crawl, and then walk. It was like an amateur athlete competing in a triathlon without ever becoming an excellent swimmer, bicyclist, and or runner! Think of paramedic school the same way. Did I complete it? Yes; but it wasn't easy.

When I started paramedic school it dawned on my very quickly that I had to become a paramedic because I wanted to become a paramedic, not because I wanted to become a firefighter. I had to acknowledge that while my ultimate long-term goal was to become a firefighter, for my short and medium range goals, I needed to work at being the best paramedic I could be. After talking to many paramedics and nurses that work in the field as preceptors in both hospitals and on ambulances, I started to realize that there was a significant failure rate when going through paramedic school, and that many of the students failed during the field internship phase.

Further investigation led me to understand why students were failing. Many of them had never worked as an EMT, and/or on an ambulance! Besides not having the prior experience, paramedic students were also at a disadvantage because many of the preceptors were sick and tired of students becoming paramedics just to become firefighters. They wanted people to be like they were when they were going to paramedic school, which was working at becoming the best paramedic they could be when they ultimately worked for the private ambulance company (because that is where most of the paramedic jobs were). In some ways, I can't blame the preceptors for not wanting to take students without EMT experience, or being even harder on them for not having EMT experience.

I had started out in paramedic school like many students probably do. I had thought I could "skate" through the class work, get the license, get on a fire department, and do what I had to do to get by until the ambulance arrived or I didn't have to be a paramedic anymore. Reality soon set in after talking to many working firefighter / paramedics and private ambulance paramedics that advised me that I better become a paramedic because I want to, not because I have to. There was too much at risk if I didn't have my heart into it. It did not take much to lose your paramedic license (versus your EMT certificate); giving the wrong medication, not giving any medication, giving too much medication, not placing the Endotracheal tube in the right place, and the list goes on and on. All of those things could lead to losing my license. Well, I'm not a genius, but I did see that if I did not complete paramedic school, or lost my paramedic license because of one of those above mentioned items, I would probably never, never, get another job as a paramedic or firefighter. I didn't like that thought. There is too much liability and at stake for a paramedic to be doing what they do if their heart and soul is not into it.

Also, I started seeing that many fire departments required their paramedics to be paramedics for a set number of years: 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, their entire career, until they promote, etc. I had to take a long look at the situation. Could I be a paramedic and be miserable at it for the next 30 years (because I did it just to become a firefighter) or could I make the best of it and embrace it and make the best of it? I chose the make the best of it and embrace it philosophy and I am glad I did. If I truly wanted to be a firefighter, but I had to be a paramedic for my entire career? Yes; because my ultimate goal was to be a firefighter. Not everyone is willing to make that commitment.

One preceptor told me, "When you start your field internship, you should be able to hit the ground running as a safe EMT, and a beginning paramedic. I first test you on your basic EMT skills to confirm your competency, and then let you start adding your paramedic skills. The last thing I want to be doing on your first few shifts is to be teaching you how to use a gurney or how to use your EMT skills that you had never used before (outside of the classroom). That takes up valuable training time that we don't have to spare." I couldn't agree with him more. Because of the glut of EMT students without experience, I could see how many of the preceptors were getting frustrated, not wanting to take students without experience, not wanting to pass them because they weren't even competent EMT's, and how students were failing their internships.

I didn't want to be one of those students! I had too much invested in becoming a firefighter to let this happen. I think I could have eventually been hired as a firefighter had I not completed paramedic school. However, I do know it would have taken me a lot longer than it actually did.

Here is how becoming a paramedic (and attempting to be the best paramedic I could be) worked for me. I took the test for the department I presently work for twice (once every two years). Both times, there were about 3,000 people testing for about 10 or so jobs. Both times, the department held a random lottery to reduce the numbers. Both times I was not selected in that random lottery. Both times, the department hired a fair amount of volunteers. Then, a miracle (for me) happened. The department was planning on providing paramedic services and needed to hire 11 paramedics. I got a letter in the mail one day stating that information, but I figured I didn't have a chance because I wasn't a volunteer there and because they were probably still going to have a lottery. Boy was I wrong. I found out there were less than 100 applicants that had even kept their contact information current and bothered to send copies of their paramedic licenses in.

They invited us to go to a physical ability test (because all original 3,000 or so had taken the written examination a year or so prior), and then if we were successful in that phase, to an oral interview. I still wasn't getting my hopes up. That was until I showed up at the physical ability test and found out there was about 70 candidates that had showed up. I further found out a few days later that only 60 went to the oral interviews. 60 people for 11 spots? Got to love those odds! I especially loved those odds since I was one of those lucky 11 individuals to go to the recruit academy. All because I had made the effort and sacrifices to go through paramedic school. Yes, it cost me about $7,000 in tuition and books, as well as an undetermined cost of lost wages (because I could not work that many hours - I wanted to focus on paramedic school), but I easily made that up in my first year or so on the department. Money well spent, I might add.

Even now, becoming a paramedic is almost a sure way (I say almost because nothing in life is guaranteed and you can't count your chickens until they're hatched) onto the fire department. If you are willing to make a sacrifice for a year or so, spend the money necessary to get you from start to finish, dedicate yourself to becoming the best paramedic you can be, understand that you might have to be a paramedic for the duration of your employment with a fire department, then you significantly increase your odds of becoming a full-time firefighter. You make the choice; there is no one to blame but yourself if you never achieve each and every one of your dreams over the course of your life time!

I am not trying to tell you what to do. Your choice of becoming a paramedic or not becoming a paramedic is one only you can make. Either way, you have to live with your decision for the rest of your life. Do what you have to do to get what you want out of life. Just remember that if you do decide to do something and your heart and soul is not 100% into it, you are setting yourself (and your employer, and the public, and your co-workers) up for FAILURE! You need to do your best and set yourself up for success - the people we provide service to deserve nothing less than the best!

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