On January 15, 1972, a new NBC television drama premiered that changed many lives, and may have even saved a few, too! This show, EMERGENCY!, featured two Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedics manning Squad 51, supported by doctors at Rampart General Hospital, with Engine 51 as their firefighting equivalent.
Paramedics were relatively new in most places in 1972, but a weekly series featuring their skills helped make them desirable in other cities and towns across America. Only a year and a half earlier, on July 15, 1970, then Governor Ronald Reagan signed the Wedworth-Townsend Paramedic Act into law. This made it legal for firefighters and rescue personnel to be trained to disperse medicine and treat victims at the scene of accidents with the direction and support of doctors via radios! Thanks to Robert A. Cinader and Jack Webb's Mark VII production company, as well as major co-operation with the LA County Fire Department, Emergency! became a reality!
Paramedics John Gage and Roy DeSoto were played by Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe. Their hope was to play the characters as realistic as possible, but still be entertaining. Both have remained supportive of Paramedic programs around the country and often speak on behalf of rescuers that they inspired.
The Rampart staff were played by Robert Fuller as Dr. Kelly Brackett, Bobby Troup as Dr. Joe Early, and Julie London, singer and real-life wife of Bobby Troup, played Nurse Dixie McCall. Initially, much of the show was to focus on the romantic relationship between Dr. Brackett and Dixie, much like a soap opera. However, much of that disappeared when the core audience of kids were infatuated with Johnny and Roy and the Engine 51 crew! Captain Hank Stanley, played by Mike Norell became the permanent Captain, after the first season was filmed with another actor. Firefighter Marco Lopez and Firefighter Chet Kelly were played by Marco Lopez, who used his real name, and Tim Donnelly. Engineer Mike Stoker was played by real life firefighter Mike Stoker! The real rig had to be moved by a trained Engineer, and since he had a SAG card, he fit in perfectly! Years later, after the show had ended, Stoker eventually became a Captain himself!
The Squad 51 unit itself became a star of the show as did both vehicles that represented Engine 51!Squad 51 was constructed by Universal and was an accurate replica of the units built in-house on stock truck chassis by LACoFD at the time. After the filming of the show, the studio donated the unit to LACoFD in 1978, which pressed it into occasional service as a reserve unit before it was eventually retired from service and donated to the Los Angeles County Fire Museum! The original Engine 51 was a 1965 open cab Crown Firecoach, and was portrayed by LACoFD Engine 127's 1965 Crown.
Beginning early in the third season and through the end of the series, Engine 51 was represented by a 1973 Ward LaFrance P80 Ambassador triple-combination pumper. LACoFD was purchasing numerous P80s at the time, and Ward LaFrance donated a P80 unit to Universal Studios specifically for use in the show.
But home was STATION 51! I have visited the "real" Station 51 in Carson, CA! It is actually LACoFD Station 127, located at 2049 East 223rd Street, a real working station! Both inside and out, it looks just like it did on the TV show! Minor modern upgrades have been made for contemporary firefighting crews, but standing in front of it you can still imagine the door opening and the Station 51 crew heading to a call! I was like a kid in a time machine when I was standing there! I was not sure if this show would hold up 40 years on. I was worried that too many changes have taken place in technology and society for it to still be relevant. It did hold up and was still very relevant!
It was made to be very precise to the LACoFD procedures, so it still comes across REAL. I actually enjoyed seeing people doing their jobs unencumbered by computers and iPhones. Sure, those devices are very useful, but maybe we use them as a crutch...The above photo was one of the last taken together before the passing of Bobby Troup and later, Julie London. Los Angeles has changed drastically in 40 years, and I'm sure if this series were to be remade today, many more racial and societal problems would have to be portrayed. Perhaps, the show might now look more like The Shield!
I loved EMERGENCY! and I have re-watched every episode and the final TV movies to commemorate the 40th anniversary! I was still as unsettled in 2011 as I was in 1973 watching the episode "Snake Bite", which shows Johnny Gage being bitten by a rattlesnake while dealing with a rescue in the brush...he eventually had to be taken to Rampart on the top of Engine 51! That episode kept me awake all night thinking rattlesnakes were surrounding my bunk bed!!! And, I was even more aghast a season and a half later watching "Transition", when a cobra spit venom into Roy's eyes!! I think that's how I am like Indiana Jones, I hate snakes! I wish, though, I still had my Emergency! lunchbox and dolls (yes, DOLLS! Action Figures were still a few years away).
The series ended in July 1979 after a season of six TV Movies. NBC didn't want to pay for new contracts and the cast was dismantled after season 6, with only Johnny and Roy returning. They were both promoted to Captain in the aired-out-of-order finale, "Greatest Rescues of Emergency!"...
I still consider this show one of my favorites and I'm glad to have been able to see and enjoy it all again 40 years later...!