Firefighter vs. EMT: The Guide to Help You Decide

Firefighter versus EMT Job GrowthDo you want to be an everyday hero? Are you just the right amount of adventurous to think running into a burning building or racing through traffic to get to a terrible accident in order to save a life is something you’d want to do? Well then a career as a firefighter or emergency medical technician (EMT) might be right for you.

Let’s examine the differences and similarities of the firefighting and EMT careers so you can decide which path is best for you.

Firefighter or EMT: Salary and career outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) median yearly pay in 2010 for EMTs is $30,360. The 2010 median yearly pay for firefighters is considerably higher at $45,250. Though the pay rate is lower for EMTs, the projected job growth rate for EMT positions is 33 percent through 2020 while firefighter positions are projected to grow at 9 percent, according to the BLS.  

Keep in mind the salary information provided comes from firefighters and EMTs of all levels of education and experience so it doesn’t necessarily reflect starting salaries. Employment conditions may also vary depending on your area.

While firefighters typically make more money than EMTs, the competition for jobs is usually much tougher. However, many firefighters work as EMTs before landing a spot with a department. If your ultimate goal is to be a firefighter, there isn’t much downside to spending time working as an EMT to help build your resume.

Being an EMT does, however, have its advantages. If you prefer being in the medical field and enjoy the rush of treating patients outside of a hospital setting, this is the job for you. EMT work also provides you with a solid medical background for if you decide to “settle down” into a clinical setting as a nurse. The biggest benefit of being an EMT may be intangible—saving someone’s life in your community can be hugely rewarding on a personal level.

Firefighter versus EMT median annual payFirefighter or EMT: Education and certification

You only need a high school diploma and EMT certification to pursue these careers in some cities.

However, because of the highly competitive job market for firefighter positions, it can help to have an associate degree in fire science in order to stand out among the crowd. And if being a firefighter is your ultimate career goal, keep in mind that you’ll need a degree to be eligible for some levels of promotion.

Working as a volunteer firefighter is another good way to gain valuable experience and learn the skills needed to succeed when it comes time to pass the rigorous evaluation process most fire departments have for applicants.

EMTs are broken down into three designations dependent on education and training: EMT-Basic, EMT-Intermediate and paramedic. The training required for each designation varies by state, but according to the BLS EMT-Basic requires approximately 100 hours of training, intermediate requires around 1,000 hours and if you want to be a paramedic, you’ll be logging 1,300 hours. 

Firefighter or EMT: Skills and job duties

Whether you choose to pursue a career as a firefighter or EMT, you will need to be physically fit. Both positions require intense physical effort, oftentimes in situations where failure could result in injury or death to you or the person you’re trying to assist. A majority of the work for both positions involves responding to medical calls—only a small amount of the calls firefighters respond to actually involve fire. Because of this overlap in duty, many firefighters have the experience or training to be an EMT.

Responding to emergency situations requires both firefighters and EMTs to be able to remain calm and communicate effectively while dealing with stressful situations. This is important when you’re the first to arrive at a chaotic scene and need to take charge of a situation.  Both positions will also require the ability to think critically and come up with creative solutions to unforeseen problems. Medical emergencies can be gruesome, so future EMTs or firefighters will have to be able to handle seeing blood or bad burns without being too squeamish.

In terms of work hours, both firefighters and EMTs can expect to work non-traditional schedules, as emergencies can happen at any time of day. Shifts for both can range anywhere from eight to 24 hours, with the amount of time off between shifts varying. Of course, longer shifts are usually accompanied by longer periods of time off. As emergencies and ill coworkers who need someone to cover for them are unpredictable, you can expect to work more than 40 hours per week on a fairly regular basis.

The biggest difference in duties between firefighters and EMTs beyond fighting fires is that EMTs, with the appropriate level of training, can administer emergency medical treatments. For example, a paramedic can intubate a patient and authorize the use of certain medications.


Have you decided if one of these brave careers is the one for you? Whether you want to be a firefighter or EMT, know that it won’t be easy but it will be rewarding.

EMTs and firefighters have quite a bit in common in terms of duties and training, however, firefighters are paid substantially more and there are far fewer job openings. This leads to a very competitive job market for potential firefighters. The best bet for a would-be firefighter is to have a combination of experience as an EMT and volunteer firefighter as well as some post-secondary education.

If you choose to be an EMT, you can have the satisfaction of helping others in your community as well as the rush of arriving to help at the scene of an emergency.  Just know that if you change your mind, the experience you earn as an EMT can always come in handy if you decide to pursue firefighting later.

If you’re leaning toward taking the next step in becoming a firefighter, be sure to read more about the value of a fire science degree

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen College. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.


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