When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I wasn’t fond of watching TV. On summer days and evenings, I was usually outdoors, riding my bike or hanging out with a friend. During the winter, I focused on school activities, homework, and reading (was I as boring as that sounds?). I watched Star Trek reruns, Buffalo Sabres games (although I listened mostly to the Ted Darling play-by-play on the radio), and oddball shows now and then. I loved How the West Was Won (the series with James Arness). Kung Fu fascinated me (don’t ask). I disliked most sitcoms, and shows like Baretta, T.J. Hooker, Starsky & Hutch, and CHIPS, and all their endless car chases. They were interchangeable and predictable and far too urban without being gritty.
I was working from home one day when I discovered Emergency! on COZI during lunch. I don’t know why I stuck with it, but I watch it when I can.
Emergency! was shot at an actual Los Angeles County fire station, so I’ve learned a lot about the area outside the city. Most of it makes me happy I don’t live there.
The fire station is nestled between an interstate (I-405, the San Diego Expressway) and a refinery (identified on a fan’s website as Atlantic Richfield). The immediate area is flat, cemented over, and depressing as it can be. It looks like the inspiration for those memorable lines from “Big Yellow Taxi”: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” If I were a firefighter, I’d want to be out on calls—except the calls are often to places like chemical plants.
Here’s what I’ve learned since watching the efforts of Station 51, the Rampart General Hospital staff, and their supporting cast.
Station 51 and Los Angeles County
Fire station crews are tiny. We have our firefighter paramedics, Roy DeSoto and Johnny Gage, plus Mike (driver and actual Los Angeles County firefighter with a SAG card), Marco and Chet (sporting awesome 1970s-style mustaches), and Cap (Hank Stanley). KMG-365. Note: I discovered that in earlier episodes, Chet’s upper lip is buck naked. Chet without a mustache is like the 1970s without the Village People.
You can save a guy’s life over and over, and he can save yours over and over, but back at the station you can return effortlessly to being mortal enemies (Gage and Chet).
There’s one police officer for a goodly section of Los Angeles County—Vince. He wears a helmet, which made me think he’s a motorcycle cop—until I noticed he drives off in a cruiser. He has no partner. Isn’t that unusual?
Rampart General Hospital relies heavily on one pair of ambulance attendants. No wonder it takes them so long to arrive at the scene. They rarely show up before the squad. I don’t think they’ve ever spoken, but they do take orders from the firefighters.
Once I did see a different ambulance pair, but realized that they were responding to a night incident with the night shift paramedics and that this was one of the two-hour Emergency! movies.
Speaking of Vince-without-a-partner and the ambulance attendants (all two of them), Los Angeles County seems to have one speaking dispatcher. During his rare appearances, he’s usually seen from the side, occasionally with others in the background. Just as Mike Stoker was a working firefighter, he was a working dispatcher for the county (and uncredited on the show).
In the pilot, some of the ambulances appear to be your typical ambulance type, but one that carts an electrocution victim to the hospital looks like a hearse. This may be foreshadowing because without on-scene defibrillation, the victim dies soon after arrival. At least the hearses, er, ambulances shown in the early seasons are white or a cheery color like yellow. I’m also glad that style was discontinued in later seasons.
Whenever Squad 51 leaves the station, there’s not much traffic. You’d think there’d be more traffic on a major four-lane street in an industrial area. They must not have gotten calls during shift changes.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think Gage can’t drive. DeSoto always drives the squad. (In real life the crew did a limited number of shots of the squad leaving the station, and Kevin Tighe happened to be driving—not unlike the Cartwrights, wealthy as they are, having only one set of working clothes so stock footage could be recycled many, many times.) In a rare exception, we see Gage move the squad at the scene to a spot closer to the victim, and later in the same episode he hops into the driver’s seat and takes off. I guess he can drive after all.
Given the freeway behind and the refinery in front, I don’t want to see what their lungs look like. That’s before taking into account work hazards like smoke inhalation and chemical exposure.
Speaking of chemicals, firefighters have to be well educated about them. They have to know how volatile, toxic, etc., they are, and how to neutralize them. Not only do they deal with house fires, but also factory and lab fires, plane and helicopter crashes, train derailments, and truck accidents. And, of course, explosions.
In Los Angeles County, simple rope is a must. Lots and lots of rope. You can’t have enough rope. Rope comes in handy because many accidents happen in canyons. As flat as the area around the station is, the county itself isn’t. People drive off roads into canyons, fall off motorcycles and bicycles into canyons, and otherwise find themselves in canyons.
If the canyons don’t claim you, the cliffs of the seashore will.
And if the seashore doesn’t get you, a high-rise or a high area in an industrial plant will.
In at least one episode, the station is called to an area where the houses are right off the road—no front yards and no room for error if a driver isn’t sharp. As we accompany our heroes, we learn that these houses are on stilts holding them up over a canyon behind them. Take up sleepwalking and plunge to your death—right from the comfort of your own home.
It’s critical for the Los Angeles County dispatcher to tell Station 51 whether to approach from the top or bottom (see “canyons”). We don’t have that issue in Cook County, Illinois.
When you lose something in the grass, look very carefully because you could startle a venomous snake like a rattler. Gage finds that out the hard way. In a canyon, of course.
Wildfires look terrifying. When you’re told to get out, you get out. They can spread and surround you fast—especially if you’re in a canyon. How do firefighters contain such large-scale conflagrations and put them out?
Los Angeles County has a lot of dirt roads.
I learn about rescue equipment I’ve never heard of. My favorites are the Porta Power, a super jack that helps our heroes lift cars and other weights off victims, or open doors, and the Stokes, a rigid basket that’s perfect for getting seriously injured people out of precarious situations (see “canyons”).
We also see how various hoses, nozzles, pressures, and so forth are used. This is a TV program that’s not afraid to use jargon, with viewers who are not afraid to hear it.
D5W and Ringer’s lactate treat almost everything. One or the other is prescribed by the ER doctors on most calls. When an IV is inserted, a paramedic has to ride along in the ambulance. (The ambulance attendees are mostly there for muscle to move the victims from the scene to the vehicle and from the vehicle to the ER treatment room.) That takes the paramedic out of circulation for the next call, which frustrates DeSoto and Gage, especially in one episode where some of the conditions don’t seem serious enough to warrant an IV.
Depending on your condition (bisecting aneurysm), you can have normal blood pressure in one arm and very high blood pressure in the other.
I’ve finally gotten my head wrapped around atrial fibrillation vs. ventricular fibrillation. (And I’ve had CPR training.) Unlike some other shows, Emergency! gets ventricular fibrillation right. Once you flatline, there’s no coming back.
Station 51 has a mascot, and he’s not a Dalmatian. No, he’s a basset hound named Henry. While Cap is studying to become a battalion chief, he finds Chet polishing equipment with Henry’s ears. He’s pretty sure that’s not by the book. Better Henry’s ears than Chet’s mustache, I say.
Rampart General Hospital
People in the 1970s were polite. They usually ask the Rampart doctor or nurse if it’s okay to smoke in the hospital. The answer is usually “yes.” Do not try this today.
Rampart nurses were still wearing the traditional nurse cap in addition to white dresses and clunky white shoes. (I went shoe shopping with a nurse once. The choices were clunky white, clunkier white, and chunkiest white.) The nurse cap had disappeared in the United States some time in the 1980s with the switch to scrubs.
I wonder why a county hospital in a highly populated area wouldn’t have more than one ER nurse? Yet Dixie often seems to be it. To be fair, others occasionally turn up in the treatment rooms, but more often than not DeSoto, Gage, or one of the ambulance guys is left to hold the IV bag.
Between car accidents, heart attacks, suicide attempts, poisonings, overdoses, fires, industrial mishaps, etc., the ER doctors and Dixie consume a lot of coffee. When they aren’t drinking coffee, DeSoto and Gage are stealing from the pot. Who makes the coffee and washes the cups with all those emergencies?
A lot of 1960s and 1970s TV shows featured actors wearing spectacularly bad wigs, and Emergency! is one of them. False hair abounds, and not only on men with little or no hair. It’s like all the time was devoted to makeup, and there wasn’t enough time to style hair properly.
In the pilot, a propeller severs a teenager’s arm. Our heroes, not yet paramedics because the paramedic program at that time is still one legislator’s dream, go to the scenes calculate the direction based on rotation, and find the missing arm, which remains out of our sight. You can only imagine how gruesome this work is without convenient camera angles and stage props to shield us.
In another incident, an epileptic boy climbs up very high expressway pillars and can’t get down. Cap and the paramedics ask the Rampart doctors if the stress of being up there and being rescued could trigger a grand mal seizure. The doctors have to look it up. I’m screaming, “OF COURSE IT COULD!” I don’t even play a doctor on TV.
The people DeSoto and Gage rescue and the doctors save (or not) bleed very little and have the courtesy to suffer burns on covered parts of the body. Not that there aren’t hints of worse. A worker, his leg firmly trapped, has to choose between being crushed by a building wall or having his leg amputated so he can be freed in time. (Spoiler: He chooses amputation, but just as our heroes are swallowing their hesitation and getting ready to carve, his leg is freed. Of course, the walls topples almost immediately.)
On occasion, the paramedics are called on to rescue animals. Fortunately for them, in one episode the missing Grover turns up in a pen along with other dogs displaced by a wildfire. In another, it’s animal control officers who search for a baby goat among the flames and smoke and Dr. Brackett who’s bullied by his team into operating on it and its heart issues, guided over the phone by a congenial veterinarian.
One of the show’s most impressive conflagrations occurs when a worker flips a lit cigarette into a Dumpster during a propane transfer at a massive research complex (think lots of chemicals). Explosion after explosion. My first thought was, shouldn’t smoking materials of any kind be prohibited in such an area? And why would a smoker choose to work day in and day out around propane?
I haven’t seen every episode, but perhaps my favorite among those I have seen is one in which a man manages to embed an unexploded grenade in his abdomen. This is one case where the ER doctors must make a house call. It appeals to me because the sometimes high-and-mighty Dr. Brackett gets a taste of the risks DeSoto and Gage and their peers face every day—sometimes several times a day. DeSoto and Gage become surgical nurses by necessity and earn Dr. Brackett’s praise and respect for their performance. I liked that. A lot.
Final words about Emergency!
It’s hard for me to say why I like Emergency! Part of it is the focus on medicine—I see health care as related to detective work. Sometimes the case is obvious. Sometimes you have to find more clues and put them together. I’m happy when I make the right diagnosis—Type 1 diabetes, tick bite, subdural hematoma—and when I learn about unfamiliar symptoms and conditions. When a Vietnam veteran uncharacteristically turns violent toward his wife, I don’t assume he suffers from PTSD—I wonder if he has a brain ailment (he does—a tumor).
While there are references to civilian life (DeSoto’s wife and children, Gage’s search for dates and the amateurish scheming he drags DeSoto into), there’s little emphasis on the personal. Early on, Dr. Brackett and Dixie are shown dating, but other than that we spend most of our time focused on the job—the mundane day-to-day life at the station of eating, gabbing, playing cards, and killing time punctuated at random intervals by emergency calls, and the ER at Rampart General (where they keep the coffee). We may not see our heroes at home, but we know enough about them to imagine what life is like outside the station and hospital.
Many episodes are not wrapped up neatly at the end. We see the paramedics work hard, but sometimes we don’t find out if the victims survive after they arrive at Rampart. There’s something satisfying about that—it’s more like life than TV.
Emergency! tackled some issues that weren’t talked about much at the time, including middle-class child abuse and attempted suicide by a child, with the abuser portrayed by an attractive, chain-smoking Mariette Hartley. Dr. Brackett is not distracted, however, in his quest to confront mom, enlighten dad, and end the abuse.
Throughout their successes and occasional failures, our heroes remain passionate about saving lives in the field when seconds count (see “ventricular fibrillation” above). Except for the occasional shenanigans (see “Gage” and “scheming” above), DeSoto and Gage remain regular, down-to-earth guys, frustrated more by their limitations than by the lack of accolades. They just do their job—and an interesting one it is to watch.