If you’ve looked to television or movies for EMS role models the last few years, your choices have been somewhat limited. You have the paramedics on NBC’s Chicago Fire, who seem more focused on their personal relationships and those in the firehouse than their medical care. On Fox’s 9-1-1, while responders face a lot of drama, there is also a great deal of melodrama and unrealistic rescues. EMS providers looking to these shows for role models of professional EMS behavior might be better off going back to where it all began from 1972–1977, NBC’s Emergency! In much the same way shows like Dragnet or Adam-12 changed the public’s perception about police for the better, Emergency! had a similar effect for EMS.
Emergency! and its paramedics on Squad 51, besides having strong viewership on Saturday nights at 8, served three far greater purposes. First, it exposed the country to what EMS and paramedics were. At the time only a few large cities had ALS services, and most EMS in the country was provided by funeral homes, volunteer rescue squads, or police units that had minimal training beyond basic first aid. According to legendary physician Eugene Nagel (who started the first paramedic program in Miami in the late 1960s), “I can’t think of anything that advanced emergency medicine more than this show.” Then-Sen. Alan Cranston said in 1974 the show “alerted the public to the value of paramedics for better emergency care.”1
Second, it was a spark for many people of a certain age to get involved in the fire or emergency medical services. Talk to anyone in EMS above the age of 35, and there’s a strong chance watching Emergency! the first time around (or in syndication) was a force in getting them to be part of EMS.
Last and perhaps most important, Emergency! served another important function: It gave firefighters and EMS role models so they could see what “professional” was supposed to look like. John Gage and Roy DeSoto were the fictional paramedics on the show. No matter the call, no matter the time of day or night, they were always in neat uniforms with shoes shined and blue button-down shirts pressed and tucked in. They checked their equipment at the start of every shift. They cleaned and took pride in their station and apparatus. They took refresher and training courses. They were always 100% professional and polite to every patient, regardless of the severity of the call. Most important, they provided quality and respectful care to all patients.
Even their dialogue was professional. According to Dick Friend and Jim Page, a director and technical advisor for the show respectively, they didn’t want any frivolous banter on calls. They said, “Frivolous banter between the men while responding to an emergency situation is, in our opinion, inappropriate. The fact of a possible life-threatening situation, coupled with the serious business of traversing busy city streets with red lights and sirens, precludes lightheartedness to indicate a possible unsafe response.”1
Professionalism was important to the show, including the then-protocol of wearing helmets on a response, the way they spoke on the radio, and the way they addressed their officers. According to then-Los Angles County Fire Chief Richard Houts, “We believe Emergency! has been good for the image of the fire service in general.”1 Even the actors followed this sentiment. Mike Norell, who played Capt. Hank Stanley on the show, did ride-alongs at L.A. County’s Station 95 because he wanted to “do it right.”1 He took the real firefighters’ advice and kept his command as calm and collected as possible.
When EMS assesses a patient, we quickly determine if they are “sick” or “not sick.” Similarly, the public sizes us up to see if we are professional or not professional, and perhaps some of those expectations, fairly or unfairly, come from what they see on TV. If you want to look and act the part of professional—having knowledge, compassion, and respect for yourself and others—then look no further than Johnny and Roy on Emergency!’s Squad 51. If you’ve never seen the show, it is worth your while to track down a DVD or rerun and see what inspired and changed our profession.
1. Yokley RC, Sutherland R. Emergency! Behind the Scene. Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2007.
Barry A. Bachenheimer, EdD, FF/EMT, is a frequent contributor to EMS World. He is a career educator and university professor with more than 30 years in EMS and fire suppression. He is currently an EMT with the South Orange (N.J.) Rescue Squad, a firefighter with the Roseland (N.J.) Fire Department, and an instructor at the National Center for Homeland Security and Preparedness in New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.