The NBC television show Emergency!, which ran 123 episodes on NBC from 1972 to 1977, plus six made-for-TV movies that aired in 1978 and 1979, did a lot to make the public aware of professional Medics, playing a significant role in elevating the profession from mere “ambulance drivers.”
The show starred Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe as Paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy Desoto, running out of the fictitious Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Station 51. It was the last show created by Jack Webb (of Dragnet and Adam-12 fame).
That one station seemed to cover it all: the mountains to the seashore, small neighborhoods to downtown highrises, and industrial complexes — whatever it took to get a fresh angle on rescue and medical intervention and tell the story.
And it helped draw a lot of new Medics into the business in the 1970s, including myself (in 1977).
While Mantooth, now 67, still works as an actor, he is also still active in promoting professional EMS. He appears at many EMS conferences, including at the EMS World Expo in Las Vegas, which I’m attending this week.
Squad 51 Dispatch
A typical dispatch sound clip from the show. The two tones specify the station to set off a horn there, much like a pager. Then the firefighters can hear where they’re being dispatched to.
The dispatcher’s voice is done by a real LAcoFD dispatcher, Sam Lanier, who did all the dispatching on the show (he was on duty 24x7x365, the poor bastard!)
Lanier went to work as a dispatcher at the Los Angeles County Fire Department in late 1958 after a stint in the military, and retired in 1977 shortly after the show ended. He died May 21, 1997, from a heart attack — ironically while helping at a car crash outside his house. He was 65.
The “KMG-365” at the end of the reply (by Randy Mantooth) is the station’s radio callsign, as issued by the FCC, much like any other radio station. KMG-365 is, in fact, issued to the LAcoFD, but for the station in Bellflower.
Another star of the show was their Dodge rescue vehicle, “Squad 51”. Long after the show ended, it was recovered and fully restored by LA County Battalion Chief Jim Page, who was instrumental in starting the fire agency’s paramedic program. He was also a technical adviser for the Emergency! series. Once Squad 51 was restored, he donated the vehicle to the County of Los Angeles Fire Museum.
Mantooth serves as honorary chairman and spokesman for the museum, and sometimes the two — Mantooth and Squad 51 — appear together, as they did this week in Las Vegas. I went over to meet him, introducing myself by saying, “Hi Randy, I’m Randy,” which made him chuckle. Yeah, I know: I’m a geeky fanboy.
Mantooth is quick to humbly point out he’s “only an actor,” and reveres the medics who do it for real — many of whom (at least the older ones!) were inspired by him.
The Real EMS Folks Behind Mantooth
Jim Page, the “rescuer” of Squad 51, is considered the father of Paramedicine, and was mentor to many of the now-old-timers. Indeed, the character “Johnny Gage” is named to honor James Page.
Page later became a lawyer and often represented medics, fighting for them, and became the founding publisher of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services — known in the trade as JEMS. He died in 2004 of cardiac arrest, at 68. His law firm still exists, still bears his name, and still specializes in EMS.
The show’s executive producer/co-creator, Robert Cinader, was considered an expert in EMS by the end of the show’s run (not because he produced a show about paramedics, but rather because he studied the field so thoroughly).
In 1978, Cinader was appointed to L.A. County’s Emergency Medical Services Commission, and served until 1982, his death. LACoFD named Station 127 in Carson (the stand-in for “Station 51”) in his honor: LACoFD knew it was Cinader, not the actors, who brought the show to TV in the first place, causing a radical shift in pre-hospital care.
The Biggest Spinoff Ever
The show’s impact was enormous: when it premiered in 1972, there were only 12 operating paramedic units in North America. Ten years later, more than half of all Americans were within ten minutes of a paramedic unit.
The Smithsonian’s National History Museum, public-service section, has some of the equipment from the show, including its real defibrillator, to illustrate the early history of paramedicine.
It’s truly cool that Randy Mantooth is carrying on Jim’s legacy, and takes seriously the important role he played in mentoring so many Medics, even if it was “only” a TV show.
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Note: Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles County did not have the first civilian paramedics. That honor goes to Pittsburgh, and that story is also on my blog, in The First Paramedics.