Cells often mount ultrasensitive (switch-like) responses to stimuli. The design principles underlying many switches are not known. We computationally studied the switching behavior of GTPases, and found that this first-order kinetic system can show ultrasensitivity. Analytical solutions indicate that ultrasensitive first-order reactions can yield switches that respond to signal amplitude or duration. The three-component GTPase system is analogous to the physical fermion gas. This analogy allows for an analytical understanding of the functional capabilities of first-order ultrasensitive systems. Experiments show amplitude- and time-dependent Rap GTPase switching in response to Cannabinoid-1 receptor signal. This first-order switch arises from relative reaction rates and the concentrations ratios of the activator and deactivator of Rap. First-order ultrasensitivity is applicable to many systems where threshold for transition between states is dependent on the duration, amplitude, or location of a distal signal. We conclude that the emergence of ultrasensitivity from coupled first-order reactions provides a versatile mechanism for the design of biochemical switches.