EMS week traces its origins back 40 years ago to 1973, when millions of Americans were first getting to know EMS via the iconic TV show Emergency!
By Jenifer Goodwin
In January 1972, the premier episode of Emergency! aired on NBC. Over the next six years, audiences watched firefighter-paramedics Johnny Gage (played by Randolph Mantooth), Roy DeSoto (played by Kevin Tighe) and the fictional crew of Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 51 deliver babies, teach CPR, treat seizures and rescue people trapped in car wrecks, storm drains and even a man-eating sofa bed.
By bringing paramedics into American living rooms for the first time, the show was more than entertainment. In an era when there were still only a handful of EMS programs nationwide, Emergency! educated Americans about pre hospital medicine, helping to build support for the nascent profession -while inspiring a generation of young EMTs and paramedics.
In 2000, Project 51 was established as a nonprofit organization to promote EMS and the role Emergency! played in its development. Project 51 organized a national tour that same year, featuring Mantooth and other contributors to the show, along with the original Squad 51 rescue vehicle, which had been completely refurbished. The tour ended at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with an induction ceremony of the show’s memorabilia into the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of American History.
Mantooth, one of the show’s stars, has remained active in the EMS community, staying up-to-date on advances in the field by going on ride-alongs. In addition to regular acting jobs, he frequently serves as a keynote speaker at fire and EMS events and as honorary chairman of the County of Los Angeles Fire Museum Association. Mantooth speaks about the legacy of the show and what it’s like to be the nation’s most famous “paramedic.”
Why do you think Emergency! Resonated with audiences as much as it did?
When the show first started, the executive producer, Bob Cinader, told all the writers they couldn’t make anything up. They had to actually get the rescues out of a fire log. It didn’t have to be Los Angeles—it could be Chicago, New York or somewhere else—but it had to be real. This infuriated the writers at first. They said, “You’re tying our hands.” But Bob said, “That’s the rules. You can change names or change situations, but can’t make the rescue up.” Well, the writers started reading the fire logs and they realized this was going to be the easiest job they’d ever had. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Writers were clamoring to get on the show.
Because of that, what happened was that viewers viscerally began to understand, “Hey, this is real.” We were portraying events that actually happened.
Bob also didn’t want the show to follow Johnny and Roy home, into their private lives. Today, every character in a TV program has to be an alcoholic, or they beat their wives, and it becomes a soap opera. But Bod said that wasn’t what the show was all about. Emergency! Really was trying to explain what a firefighter-paramedic actually does.
Speaking of Roy, are you still in touch with Kevin Tighe?
He’s my best friend. I talk to him once a week. Emergency! never worked out for him [in terms of promoting him] as an actor. He couldn’t get a job for two years after the show. He had to go out and reinvent himself, so he became a villain in shows, and a damn good one. If there’s a role for a very bad guy, they call Kevin. He played John Lock’s father in Lost, a smirking SOB if there ever was one. But Kevin couldn’t be more opposite. He’s the sweetest, most gentle guy in the world.
EMS Week is a time to celebrate the contribution of EMT and paramedic, from every type of service. What would you like to say to today’s emergency responders?
I’d like them to remember why they are doing what they do. The EMTs and paramedics of today have so much lifesaving equipment it just boggles my mind. You almost have to be a rocket scientist to know what it all means.
Sometimes, when I’m on a ride-along, I get a sense they have such regard for their machines that I don’t see that personal touch, or I see it less and less, and the patient is quickly becoming a second though. I’ve watched people look up at firefighters and paramedics and they are scared to death. Many have never been in this place before. A lot don’t know if they’re going to live or die. And all they see is people reading their machines. I’m not saying that shouldn’t be done, but I’ve personally seen one touch of the hand, eye contact and a smile—‘Hey, buddy, you’re going to be OK. You’re not going to die on my watch’—I’ve watched people instantly brighten up. They were no longer so frightened. So what I’d say to today’s emergency responders I remember why you’re doing what you do, and that’s to help people. And one of the best and easiest and most effective ways to help people is to make a human connection, to let them know you’re going to take really good care of them.
Your character on Emergency! was named after the late Jim Page, who back then was a Lost Angeles battalion chief who served as the show’s technical advisor. What did Jim mean to the show?
Jim was a the heart and soul of the show. We called him the father of the paramedic program here in L.A. He was always pushing this idea to a group of old-fashioned firefighters who wanted nothing to do with a paramedic program, and definitely not one that was part of the fire department. There was such resentment from the fire department in the late 60s and early 70s. Their mantra was “We fight fires. We don’t deliver babies.” But Jim knew this was the future.
Jim’s involvement with Emergency! was looked upon with disdain by his bosses. SO when Jack Webb, whose production company owned the show, said he was going to name one of the characters after him, Jim ran down to the office and said, “Oh my God—if you do that they’re gonna fire me.” Jack didn’t want that to happen, so he quickly switched the name from Jim Page to John Gage.
Jim actually wrote three Emergency! episodes. One was called “Snakebite.” As it turns out, it’s one of the most iconic of all the shows and certainly the most popular with the fans. Everybody always tells me it was their favorite episode.
Jim was a visionary. The fire department has changed, of course. The old guy retired or died out. Now, for the first time in Los Angeles, they have a county fire chief, Daryl Osby, who started out as a paramedic. Daryl told me he became a firefighter/paramedic because of Emergency!
What did Jim mean to you personally? How was it to have the show inducted into the Smithsonian?
Jim and I didn’t really get along on the show. He was always trying to get me to cut my hair. SO when he’d come to the set, I’d run and hide. I became closer to him after the show was off the air. He was a very big help in getting the show inducted into the Smithsonian Museum of American History. What was great was that it wasn’t inducted into the entertainment section. It was inducted into the public service section. That was one of the proudest moments of my life. TO be with doctors, paramedics and other public servants was an honor I never thought I deserved. I didn’t create the show. I didn’t write it. I just acted in it. I was the luckiest kid in the world. We grabbed the tiger by the tail and hung on.