What is a career in the police, security and emergency services like?
The emergency services – police, fire, ambulance and coastguard - are on hand 24/7 to help and support us when we are injured, in an accident or the victims of crime.
They are publicly funded and also spend a large amount of time helping to improve public safety in the community as well as make people aware of threats and avoidable dangers.
The work of the police is very wide ranging and includes investigating many different crimes, from theft to assault, fraud and drug trafficking. They also work to support victims and gather evidence for criminal court cases. View our guide to becoming a police officer.
When criminals are sentenced in court, the prison services take over to keep them in custody and / or manage their probation and help them rehabilitate back into society.
Private security staff, like bouncers, bodyguards and event stewards also work to help keep people safe in public and at work.
Beyond the police, intelligence organisations, including MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, investigate threats to national security like terrorism and espionage (spying) and can gather secret intelligence at home and overseas.
What police, security and emergency jobs can I do?
To find out more about what happens in courts, check out our careers advice for law students.
Police officers help to prevent and investigate crime. They work with victims and witnesses to track down people and question them or make arrests. Police officers can rise up the ranks to become constables or inspectors and can specialize in many different areas, including fraud, traffic, counter-terrorism, drugs, dog handling, even underwater search team.
Police community support officers (PCSOs) support the police force on the streets, dealing with minor crimes, supporting victims and helping to keep communities safe. They can detain people but they cannot arrest them and don’t get involved in the riskiest operations.
Paramedics treat people at the scene of an emergency and get them to hospital. They are medically qualified to provide life support, give medicine and dress injuries. To find out how to get there and about other medical jobs, go to our medicine & healthcare careers advice page.
Firefighters control fires and rescue people in emergencies including explosions, building collapses and traffic accidents. They also educate people in fire prevention and inspect areas and buildings to make sure they are safe. Retained firefighters provide additional cover, often in rural areas. They are not normally based at a fire station and can work part time alongside another job. Check out our guide to becoming a firefighter, and this interview with a firefighter.
Coastguards perform emergency search and rescue at sea as well as investigate illegal shipping or dumping and pollution on the coast. Many rescuers are volunteers but you can also work as a paid watch assistant or officer.
Call handlers are a seriously important part of the emergency services and are usually the first people you speak to in an emergency. They will direct the right people to you and keep you calm until they arrive. Senior medical call handlers can also talk people through life saving first aid at the scene of an accident.
Security Services investigate threats to national security including terrorism, spying, organised crime and hacking. The UK security service (MI5) deals with security threats coming from within the UK, GCHQ specializes in communications and technology and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) collects information on threats coming from outside of the UK. Much of the security services' work deals with confidential intelligence gathering (done by intelligence officers and analysts) i.e. observing and analysing information about people and organisations online, down the phone and in person. For this reason people with IT, programming and language skills are often highly sought after.
Security officers and guards work for private companies and help them maintain security, including patrolling buildings or sites to prevent break-ins, vandalism and shoplifting. Many security guards work at night to help protect places when they are unoccupied. On the other hand Bouncers (or door supervisors) help control security in a venue, by controlling numbers, managing crowds and handling conflict.
Probation officers are supported by probation service officers and work with people and supervise them before, during and after they go to prison. They support offenders to get back into society and aim to reduce the risk that they will commit other crimes.
Prison officers supervise inmates of prisons; remand centres or young offenders institutions. They help maintain security and order as well as assess prisoners and support those who are vulnerable. Prison officers can work their way up to become governors, who are responsible for managing prisons.
Scenes of crime investigators specialise in collecting forensic evidence from crime scenes, including photographs, fingerprints, weapons and samples. Forensic scientists analyse this evidence in a lab and try to piece together what happened to present it in court, from finding DNA to tracing suspects or working out the cause of a fire. Today, crime scenes extend beyond physical places and forensic computer analysts are needed to track down incriminating data and investigate cyber crime.
Immigration officers help to protect national security by checking passports and visas at airports and other border crossings. They can be involved with interviewing people in the UK, detaining them or working to gather intelligence for security services.
Private investigators carry out secret investigations for a range of clients including individuals, businesses, local councils or even legal firms. You might help to trace stolen goods, investigate fraud or complete background checks on people. Most private investigators work alone.
Is a career in police, security and emergency for me?
A lot of police work is confidential and, if you work for the security services, you might not even be able to tell your friends what you do for a living, so you’ll need to be discreet and able to protect your work. This means that leaving memory sticks in cafes and carrying your files in a see-through Perspex backpack are definitely out.
Sometimes the police, security and emergency services can be put in dangerous positions; so you’ll need to be calm under pressure. The work can be physically tough too and keeping people safe is a 24-hour operation, so you’ll need to be fit and able to work long or flexible hours.
Cyber crime is a huge challenge for the police and security services, from trolling to fraud and espionage. As cyber criminals become more sophisticated, there are more and more careers opening up for people with IT and programming skills.
How can I start a career in police, security and emergency services?
Most jobs provide on-the-job training (usually level 3 and above) and won’t ask for specific subjects, although you should still make sure to get your maths and English GCSEs at 9-4. If your passion is emergency medicine or forensics, biology and chemistry are important at GCSE and A-level and, if required, you should aim for a medical or science degree, e.g. in forensic science.
There are also specific degrees relating to policing, including community justice, criminology, criminal justice and police studies.
Qualifications in foreign languages, computing, maths and engineering are useful for a range of jobs that involve technology and gathering secret intelligence.
Note: for many jobs you will need to have a criminal record check and you may need to take drug tests too. A criminal record could stop you from applying for some jobs, depending on the conviction.
GCSE or A-levels and apprenticeships / on-the-job training:
You must be 18 to join the police, coastguard or fire service (you can volunteer for the coastguard from 16) and you’ll need to check with your local services individually to find out what their requirements are. You might not be asked for specific A-levels or GCSEs, but you will need to pass written and numeric tests and a medical or fitness test to join up. It’s essential for coastguards to have experience at sea too!
To join the police force, you might also need a Certificate in Knowledge of Policing before you can apply. Some colleges offer pre recruitment courses for the fire service too.
Prison officers and immigration officers don’t need specific qualifications but will also need to take written selection tests.
Paramedics can train after A-levels (make sure to take at least one science) with a foundation degree, diploma of higher education (DipHE) degree, or through a student paramedic post with an ambulance trust.
Call handlers may need GCSEs in English, maths and a science.
Probation service officers and crime scene investigators will need 5 GCSEs and maybe an A-level in chemistry or biology fro CSI.
Forensic computer analysts can train with a new cyber security apprenticeship or a related degree.
Bouncers, private investigators and other private security staff will need to get a license from the Security Industry Authority, plus it usually helps to have some experience e.g. working for the police or armed forces.
If you are fluent in a foreign language, you may be able to work for the Secret Intelligence Services without specific formal qualifications but a degree will give you more options. They also offer some higher technical apprenticeships to people with A-levels in all STEM subjects.
Graduate degree and on the job training
The security services, police forces and the prison service all run graduate schemes to fast-track people for senior or management roles. You’ll normally need a 2.1-degree to apply.
Extra credit: Join your local police cadets or young firefighters scheme to gain extra experience while you are still at school.
What police, security and emergency qualifications are available?
Because so many careers involve on the job training, you’ll get the chance to work towards a whole range of work-based qualifications.
To give you a taster: In the fire service you could work towards a level 3 in Fire and Rescue Services Operations, with the police you could get to level 4 or 5 certificates in Police Management, and a higher apprenticeship with the secret services could see you work towards a foundation degree in Communications Systems, Security and Computing. Probation officers can even work towards a degree and postgraduate qualification in community justice and probation practice.
Many jobs in this area will also provide you with general training in health and safety and first aid too.
Did you know these police, security and emergency services facts?
The first professional police force was established in Glasgow in 1800. Before that "thief takers" would capture criminals for a fee.
Prime minister Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829.