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EMS From a Distance: Responding to Emergency

Emphasizing the old-world values of Squad 51 in today’s EMS


Last month, I was watching an episode from Season Five of Emergency! – just for research, of course – and I was struck by how perfect Randy Mantooth and Kevin Tighe were for the roles of Johnny and Roy. The actors project wonderment and humility, perhaps because they weren’t any better known than EMS was when the series premiered in 1972. Sure, some scenes were sanitized versions of rescue, but most viewers like me who didn’t know a defibrillator from a dehumidifier would have liked and trusted that congenial crew in real life.

Now, if you don’t mind indulging me with a bit of box-office fantasy, what if Emergency!’s producers had picked a couple of big stars instead of Tighe and Mantooth to play Gage and DeSoto – say, Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood? Pacino had just made his bones as Michael Corleone in The Godfather while Eastwood was making everyone’s day in a trio of Dirty Harry hits.

Can you imagine Pacino as Johnny and Eastwood as Roy? Or vice versa? Either way, we probably would have seen two of the most intense and discouraging portrayals of paramedics in the history of prime-time medicine. Forget Emergency! as a feel-good series about friendly firefighters who save grandmas and their cats; the show would have been about two partners who are way past burnout and headed for meltdown. Instead of being inspired to join EMS, most of us impressionable youngsters would have looked for safer work – like gang interdiction.

As naïve as Emergency!’s portrayal of patient care could be, we bought into the characters’ old-world sensibilities: values like kindness and honor. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
As naïve as Emergency!’s portrayal of patient care could be, we bought into the characters’ old-world sensibilities: values like kindness and honor. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

EMS core values

As naïve as Emergency!’s portrayal of patient care could be, we bought into the characters’ old-world sensibilities: values like kindness and honor. Some of you responded by adding to the ranks of our industry’s first generation. Thank you for that. But if Emergency! had featured gritty realism instead of goodwill, I think many of you would have felt conflicted about following such a path – as if you were seeking spiritual guidance and your first church sermon were about the end of times.

On the cusp of legitimacy, EMS might have been weakened by thrill seekers instead of fortified by idealists. That would have been a shame, because as much as we needed rescuing in the ‘70s, society could use even more paramedics like Johnny and Roy right now.

The one time I called an ambulance for a family member, I was still five years away from getting involved in EMS. I didn’t know enough about emergent care to judge the crew on their competence. I was most impressed by their courtesy. They were nice, caring people like the Randy Mantooth and Kevin Tighe versions of Gage and DeSoto. I didn’t hesitate to trust them with my kid.

Fast forward to the present, and I’m finding it more likely to encounter a Pacino-inspired Johnny or an Eastwood clone of Roy. It’s not surprising that life in and around EMS no longer evokes Emergency!’s good-natured vibe, but that doesn’t mean those of us delivering care can’t hold on to some of those values that attracted us to this business many years ago. To do so, maybe we need to reorient some of our thinking from the negative to the positive.

What bothers you most about EMS? Low pay? Long hours? System abuses? Disrespect? I bet those four complaints would top the list if I sampled Facebook posts. I could fill a column much bigger than this one with an essay about any one of those topics, but that’s probably not something you’d want to read. You’ve already seen plenty of opinions about what’s wrong with our industry and have dozens of your own concerns.

Let’s try something different: Instead of cataloging dissatisfiers, let’s talk about what needs to stay the same. I don’t mean superficial customs like uniforms or rank or ice cream for EMS Week, but core values – the ones that are supposed to make EMS special:

  • Courage. Standing up for those who can’t protect themselves.
  • Teamwork. Showing how a partnership can be greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Compassion. When a desire to help supersedes a duty to act.
  • Humility. Letting our actions and other people’s words advertise our capabilities.
  • Respect. Understanding that giving respect is a prerequisite for getting it.

Emergency! accentuated those qualities and implied they were prerequisites for real paramedics. Four decades later, though, fictional EMS shows have replaced Squad 51’s enthusiastic caregivers with either brooding antiheroes or laugh tracks. That’s not our fault; it’s just a sign of these cynical times. We can still channel our inner Johnny and Roy whenever we answer a call, though, even if the only person we’re impressing is on the stretcher.

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