City and town budgets rarely stretch as far as they need to, for them to to cover all the services that residents need. Volunteer EMTs help fill those gaps. For rural fire departments, they're critically important, which receive too few calls to justify paying full-time EMT salaries, as well as being underfunded or having understaffed departments in suburban and urban areas. Volunteering has benefits for the EMTs too: not only do they provide an essential community service, but also, these volunteers earn valuable experience that can lead to paid employment later on. Getting EMT experience is also useful for medical students and other young people considering a career in medicine or in emergency medical services (EMS).
Meeting the EMT Requirements
Because of legal requirements, fire departments and EMS programs typically won't accept a volunteer EMT who hasn't completed a formal EMT training program – and a volunteer can't provide a high level of care without getting that training. That said, education and certification requirements vary by area. A candidate who has completed a formal EMT training program will almost certainly meet his or her local EMS department's minimum requirements.
An EMT student will become certified to perform CPR and learn how to give first aid, recognize medical conditions and perform life-saving treatments (like giving oxygen and using defibrillation on patients whose hearts have stopped). Students also learn how to operate ambulance equipment and how to work with the team that is involved in responding to calls, which may include other EMTs, dispatchers, firefighters, police officers and hospital staff.
An EMT training program may be an intensive weeks-long course or take as long as three months or more. Courses commonly include 100+ hours of classroom work followed by field training, in which students shadow working EMTs on calls. Some city governments offer EMT training programs at no cost to candidates who commit to volunteering for a certain length of time, but an aspiring volunteer EMT can also find courses offered by local community colleges and the American Red Cross.
Becoming a Volunteer EMT
Although many fire departments and EMS providers are in need of volunteers, they still have requirements that candidates must meet. Expect to fill out an application and complete at least one interview before being accepted. A would-be volunteer may be asked to consent to drug testing and background checks, provide several references and commit to completing a certain number of work and training hours each month.
A volunteer who has physical disabilities and/or a history of alcohol/drug abuse, severe mental health issues or convictions may be disqualified, depending on the department's policies.
What to Expect as a Volunteer EMT
Doing paramedic volunteer work is a high stakes activity. Although you won't be paid, you will be expected to be ready to report to a call at any time when you're on a shift. That might mean getting out of bed in the middle of the night to drive through inclement weather or staying sober during social events just in case a call comes in. However, you probably won't be on call anywhere close to as much as paid EMTs are. Volunteers may be expected to spend their on-duty shifts at the fire department/EMS department, or they may stay at home and only go work if a call comes in.
Volunteers see all the same traumatic scenes that paid EMTs do, so you should be prepared to work on patients who are covered in bodily fluids or who have severe injuries, and you should also be comfortable seeing dead bodies and working in an extremely high-stress environment. If that's not for you, then there are other ways to serve the community. Your local EMS department may have a pressing need for other types of volunteering, doing things, such as administrative work.