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5 things firefighters should know before going to paramedic school

Paramedic school is a commitment, so it’s important to invest time in a quality program


As a paramedic, saving lives is not a possibility, it’s the standard. You just have to go through the challenge of meeting it.

Photo/Crafton Hills College

We asked the FireRescue1 community, “What level of medical training does your fire department require?” The majority of respondents (63%) indicated EMR/first responder or EMT/EMT-Basic, and 15% indicated paramedic.

As a former paramedic school instructor, I saw students from all walks of life, from high school graduates working toward their first career to older adults working on their second.

Always included in the mix were firefighters from local departments – men and women who had already landed their dream jobs but had enrolled in the course so they could do more while on the scene.

No matter which department they came from, I witnessed these firefighters fall victim to the same pitfalls again and again.

So if you are a firefighter thinking about going to paramedic school, here are five things I think you should know.

1. You are learning a new profession

EMS is its own profession, and becoming a paramedic places you at the top. You are not learning how to be the third paramedic assigned to an engine company. You will be trained to act autonomously as a professional paramedic in the middle of nowhere, with no help coming.

You will need to prove that you can perform as if every transport lasted an hour. And there will be no company officer there to tell you what to do.

To be successful, you will have to put the firefighter out of your head and embrace the role of being the lead paramedic on an ambulance.

2. Not all programs are created equal

It’s important to choose your school wisely – and for the right reasons. The worst thing you can do is to choose a school because you heard it was easy.

Just like the fire academy, paramedic school is supposed to be hard. There is so much to learn in such a short amount of time that there is no way around the struggle. And no matter where you go, when you graduate, the National Registry Exam awaits you.

I have been called to tutor many graduates of less-challenging programs after having failed the exam. For the student, it’s a desperate situation. And for me, trying to teach them everything they need to know, it’s an impossible one.

Embrace the challenge that reputable EMS programs will give you, because if it’s easy now, you’ll pay for it later.

3. Experience does not always equal expertise

Being a firefighter, you bring experience with you to class. That’s great. It will help you grasp the material in ways that those who have never run a call will not be able to do. But having watched a firefighter-paramedic on your crew push D-50 on 100 hypoglycemic diabetics does not make you an expert on diabetes.

For each medical emergency you will learn to manage in paramedic school, you will also need to know how to assess for the condition as well as its pathophysiology. Then when you have a good grasp on how it works in adults, you will need to do the same for pediatrics.

There is a whole lot more to learn than what you have witnessed while on emergency scenes. And no matter how minute some of the information may seem, you never know what might pop up on the National Registry Exam.

4. School will be your new second job

Paramedic school is an investment, but not just monetarily. It also will cost you a lot of time. You will spend hours in the classroom and the lab, have scheduled clinicals and still need to find time to study. And don’t forget, you will also need to report to your fire station every third day.

Firefighters often have second and sometimes even third jobs. Trying to maintain a hectic work schedule away from your firefighting and paramedic school duties is a recipe for academic failure.

If you are completely dependent on the extra paychecks, then you should seriously consider waiting to enroll in paramedic school when you are more financially secure.

But no matter your financial standing, every prospective student should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Landing a financial aid grant that you do not have to pay back later is a big stress reliever.

5. It’s worth it

I’m proud to be a firefighter. It’s what I tell people when they ask me what I do for a living. But about five years ago, a man came to the fire station looking for “that paramedic” (me) who had transported him to the hospital.

He had called 911 a few weeks prior for exacerbation of his congestive heart failure. When we found him, his blood pressure was through the roof and his lungs had filled with fluid. I remembered placing the CPAP on his face as he gasped for air and then watching as he experienced his first inkling of relief since the incident had started.

After nearly a decade in the fire service, I have not pulled anyone from a burning building or dangled from a rope to perform a high-angle rescue. But I have run hundreds of calls like the one I described above – so many, that at the time, I didn’t feel like I had done anything special.

But the man who could not breathe that day felt my actions deserved the greatest compliment anyone in our profession can hear: “You saved my life.” To me, his words makes all the stress, the hours of study, the cheap lunches of peanut butter and jelly, and the constant recitation of “BSI Scene Safe” worth it.

As a firefighter, you constantly prepare for the day you may have to risk it all to save a life.

As a paramedic, saving lives is not a possibility, it’s the standard. You just have to go through the challenge of meeting it.

Editor’s Note: What was your paramedic school experience like? Share in the comments below.

Ben Thompson is a battalion chief in Birmingham, Alabama. In 2016, Thompson developed his department’s first mobile integrated health (MIH) program and shared his experiences from building the program at TEDxBirmingham. Thompson was the recipient of the 2016 Emergency Medical Service Provider of the Year Award and the 2018 Joe E. Acker Award for Innovation in Emergency Medical Services, both in Jefferson County, Alabama. He has a bachelor’s degree from Athens State University in Alabama and is a licensed paramedic. Connect with Thompson through his website