Why "Emergency!" remains a TV classic
Fictitious and sometimes unrealistic, the crew from Emergency! raised the bar for EMS and the fire service
By Will Wyatt
Recently I rediscovered an old friend who was a big part of my childhood. One of my co-workers came in the day room and switched the TV to a station that airs mostly classic shows. Low and behold, at 4 p.m., on came "Emergency!"
I have previously questioned how we are portrayed on the screen. Usually we are shown as manically depressed alcoholics with more failed relationships than can be counted.
We haven't had a lot of movies either. There was 1974's "The Towering Inferno" in which Batt. Chief Steve McQueen tried to put out a high-rise fire. And of course "Backdraft," which gave us a lot of cool lines.
I rode in the back of a pumper the other day, which I rarely do. As we pulled out, the person next to me yelled, "you're doing it wrong!" Of course he was referring to me buttoning up my collar closure. I even walked around a burned up house once reciting the classic DeNiro lines: "Come on talk to me. How did you start?"
My favorite fire-themed movie has to be the John Wayne classic "The Hellfighters."
Our television series have been equally slim. I remember a little-watched show called "Firehouse" in which James Drury of the Virginian TV show was the captain. Years later, along came "Code Red," a show about the LAFD. Recently we had "Rescue Me" and today, of course, "Chicago Fire."
However, for my money, there always will be one TV fire show: "Emergency!"
The one show
"Emergency!" first aired in January 1972. It showcased the new paramedic program in the Los Angeles County Fire Department. There were over 130 episodes, a two-hour pilot movie and several movies after the show went off the air.
When the show debuted, I was 11 and lived a stone's throw from the local firehouse. When the siren went off, the windows rattled. It was an event. I would always wait for the fire trucks to go by.
The show was set at Los Angeles County Station 51, which in real life was Los Angeles County Station 127 in Carson, Calif. Station 127 was chosen because the way it sat limited problems with the angle of the sun for filming.
Interestingly, "Emergency!" was never a number-one ratings winner but lasted seven years and still has a following today. There is even a fan website.
When I look at this show now, I notice that it is so squeaky clean – it is absolutely sterile. Station 51 has to be the utopia of fire stations.
There was never a problem at Station 51. The air conditioner never broke, the toilets were never backed up, Engine 51 never broke (I don't remember them ever being in a crappy reserve rig), nobody ever drew a blank on a street and every hydrant they ever hooked up to worked.
When the show began, they ran a 1965 Crown Fire Coach open cab pumper. The new Engine 51 was a 1973 Ward La France Ambassador pumper. The premise of this episode was Gage and DeSoto buying an antique fire truck to fix up after noticing it at a junkyard fire.
As the show opens, the squad has not come back from an early morning run and Capt. Stanley invites Gauge and DeSoto to go with the engine crew to the junkyard fire.
Now, in real life, here is what would have happened.
The off-going paramedics would have come back and found they had no relief. They would have called the district chief and asked if they should go out of service or be put on overtime. The chief would have called headquarters and requested two medics be detailed to Station 51 because they have two medics on overtime.
So obviously it is a complete waste of time to watch this 40-year-old show now because absolutely nothing could possibly be gained from it except a mild diversion from current life with nuclear missiles aimed at us.
Or is it?
Anybody in this business owes a debt of gratitude to these guys. They were the ultimate professionals. They portrayed us in the best possible light – from their appearance to their bedside manner. You never heard Roy DeSoto say, "you called us for this?" They "yes ma’amed" and "yes sired" everybody they came in contact with no matter how mundane.
Go with me on this one; I know it was fictitious. Capt. Stanley was the captain you want to work for. He was in charge but had a skill a lot of officers don't – he would listen to his people.
When they arrived at some far-fetched rescue, where a workman is trapped in a washing machine suspended 200 feet in the air on a cable, Johnny Gauge would say, "Cap if we do this or that," and Capt. Stanley would go with it. He didn't point out that he was in fact the captain and they would therefore do what he said because he was in charge.
Maybe this was because a significant percentage of the cast were real firefighters.
The real thing
Capt. Dick Hammer was the engine captain for the first season and he was just that, Capt. Dick Hammer of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Capt. Hammer died of lung cancer in 1999.
Every dispatch that came over the speakers at Station 51 was announced by the same clear voice. That voice was Los Angeles County Fire Dispatcher Sam Lanier. Lanier retired shortly after the show went off the air and was diagnosed with heart issues. Sadly Lanier died of a heart attack in 1997 as he was rendering aid at a car wreck near his home.
It reminds me of the Donald Sutherland line in "Backdraft:" "Funny thing about firemen, they are always firemen." Lanier was actually shown a few times as he dispatched calls.
Los Angeles County Firefighter/Engineer Mike Stoker, who played himself on the show, got the part because he had a Screen Actors Guild card and could drive the equipment. Firefighter Stoker retired in 1996 as a captain.
If you were to have asked me at that time if I had an idol, I would have said one of two names: Giles Meloche, the goalie for the Minnesota North Stars (when they existed), or more realistically, Mike Stoker.
Stoker was the consummate engineer – tall, handsome and confident. I have found most engineers possess these traits. He never missed a street, hardly ever went to the map, never blew by an address and always got water.
Stoker was the guy I strived to be. Unfortunately, I have to admit I am not there yet; I am still working on it. My co-workers would gladly tell you I passed a street the other day.
It was a different place and time, but they were the best of the best and they set the bar high. Thank you Station 51.
About the author
Will Wyatt, originally from New Orleans, has been in the fire service for about 30 years. Will is a captain at a fire department near Houston. He has held numerous ranks with fire departments including full-time training officer, fire marshal and deputy chief. Will holds a master firefighter certification with the Texas, an instructor certification, pump operator certification and an associate degree from Houston Community College. Will is author of the book, "And a Paycheck, Too!" Check out an excerpt here and follow him on Twitter. Contact Will at Will.Wyatt@firerescue1.com.