On January 15, 1972, NBC premiered the medical drama Emergency! as a midseason replacement. For the next six years, the weekly adventures of the crew of Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 51, primarily firefighters John Gage (played by Randolph Mantooth) and Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe), brought EMS and paramedicine into the homes of millions of Americans and shone a spotlight on a field many didn’t know about. That it premiered before many current EMS providers were even born doesn’t diminish the impact that the show had, and continues to have, on EMS.
Would paramedicine have existed without Johnny and Roy? Well, probably. Paramedic programs were already developed in Los Angeles, Seattle and Miami, among other communities. But without Emergency!, EMS would not be what it is today. You could argue that no television show or movie has ever had as great an impact on the field it portrayed. For all the popularity of classic shows such as The Honeymooners and Gunsmoke, the numbers of people they inspired to become bus drivers or sheriffs was probably quite small.
Emergency! started as an idea developed by Jack Webb (best known as Detective Joe Friday from Dragnet) and producer Robert Cinader, who were also involved in the production of such shows as Dragnet and Adam-12. Webb and Cinader wanted to create a medical drama different from any other that had been brought to television, taking viewers not only into the hospital environment, but also out into the field of a profession in its infancy.
In addition to Gage and DeSoto, the show featured the other crew members of Station 51: Capt. Dick Hammer (his real name; he was an actual L.A. County fire captain at the time), Capt. Hank Stanley (Michael Norell) and firefighters Chet Kelly (Tim Donnelly), Marco Lopez (also his real name) and Mike Stoker (ditto, and who was also an L.A. County firefighter). The show also featured the doctors and nurses of Rampart General Hospital, Dr. Kelly Brackett (Robert Fuller), Dr. Joe Early (Bobby Troup), Dr. Mike Morton (Ron Pinkard) and nurse Dixie McCall (Julie London).
The weekly episodes took people into a world where all types of emergencies took place, in many different environments. Many were true stories of actual L.A. County Fire Department events, courtesy of industry legend James O. Page, who served as technical advisor and wrote several episodes. Crews could be fighting a fire at a chemical factory, then respond to a man encased in papier-mâché. They would rappel from helicopters, dive into swimming pools and handle anything else thrown their way. The show also depicted the camaraderie of the station crews, and how those crews interacted during shifts.
Over the course of the series, it introduced new lifesaving techniques (first aid, CPR, etc.) to a public that had never known them. Those techniques actually helped people in real-life situations--so much so that producers added a disclaimer to each episode stating that lifesaving techniques should only be done by trained professionals.
As the show became more popular, it was broadly marketed, and specifically toward children. Many EMS providers will tell you they owned Emergency!-related items, from toy helmets and SCBAs to board games and puzzles, vehicles and action figures, and comic books and lunch boxes. Even a cartoon series based on the show, Emergency +4, ran on NBC from 1973–76. It featured the voices of Mantooth and Tighe.
While Emergency! was ultimately cancelled in 1978, the show continued in “movie of the week” formats throughout 1978 and ’79. After its run ended, it appeared for years in syndication and on networks like TV Land. Since the cancellation of Emergency!, several TV programs related to EMS and the fire service have been developed, but none have had nearly the popularity or longevity.
Over the years Emergency! has also been available in VHS format, and the entire series is now available on DVD, giving a whole new audience an opportunity to experience the show. Additionally, a book, Emergency! Behind the Scene, containing virtually everything you would want to know about the show, has been published by Jones and Bartlett.
Today you can still see Station 51, also known as Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 127, in Carson, CA. It has been renamed after Cinader for his contribution in creating the series. The station still looks much the same as it did when it was “Station 51,” and the crews that man it are always accommodating to guests who stop by to take a look. Only two miles away is Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, the facility that inspired Rampart General Hospital.
In 1994 Universal Studios in Hollywood officially renumbered the L.A. County fire station on the studio grounds to Station 51. As the station actually houses an engine and a rescue squad vehicle, there are actually an Engine 51 and Squad 51 in service today.
After the end of Emergency!’s run, Squad 51 was placed back into service as a reserve rescue squad before it was retired. In 1999 it was donated to the Los Angeles County Fire Museum, where it has been restored and is now on display. Both engines that served as Engine 51 during the show’s run are also exhibited at the museum. The museum is open to the public on the first Saturday of every month. In July 2011, it held an event called “51 in Quarters,” where Squad 51 and both versions of Engine 51 were together at the same place for the first time since the late 1970s. More than 4,000 people attended, coming from as far away as Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands.
Also in 1999, Squad 51 embarked on Project 51, a tour of much of the United States that culminated in Washington, DC, where some of the equipment used on the show was donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Today a different version of Project 51 has been started as a grassroots campaign to get stars for Mantooth and Tighe on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
From a personal perspective, I’m one of the literally thousands of people who were brought up watching Emergency! It glued me to the TV every Saturday night. I remember playing with friends and simulating the emergencies we saw on TV (looking back, we should all be amazed we didn’t get injured rappelling from trees with rope tied around our waists). When it went into syndication in the ’80s, I remember running from the school bus to catch episodes on TV.
For me, there was something inherently cool about the word paramedic. I remember getting my first paramedic card in the mail and thinking, Wow, I’m Johnny Gage! I’d also bet there aren’t too many ALS providers who haven’t flipped the caps on Carpujects or gotten air out of a syringe by squirting liquid into the air just like Johnny and Roy did. Do you remember getting an order from a doc for lactated Ringer’s and wanting to say, “Ten-four, Rampart!”?
I’ve also been fortunate enough to get to know Randolph Mantooth over the past few years. I remember meeting him for the first time--my childhood idol. It was nothing short of surreal. Randy continues to use the popularity of the show to advocate for EMS and the fire service; you could call him a goodwill ambassador for EMS. He appears regularly at fire and EMS conferences across the country, and gives proceeds from autograph sessions to the Los Angeles County Fire Museum.
While the fields of EMS and paramedicine were developed and shaped by some amazingly intelligent and forward-thinking individuals, Emergency! was, and continues to be, a great vehicle for bringing EMS to places where it hadn’t existed before, and may not have existed as quickly if not for the show, both in the United States and around the world. Forty years later, it’s easy to see how the influence of Emergency! remains in what EMS does and how.