Reality plus drama equals "EMERGENCY!"

The pre-reality television show EMERGENCY! premiered in January 1972. Health- and medical-themed programs such as the radio and television drama Dr. Kildare had long been popular, but EMERGENCY! broke new ground. Set in Los Angeles, EMERGENCY! paid great attention to detail as it told the stories of fictional paramedics and doctors as they went about their jobs saving lives. The show didn't just look real, it was actually quite close to the real thing. An important but little-known part of the story involves the equipment used by the series' actors.

Black and white photo of actors on set, mid-scene

In pitching the premise of the show, coproducer Jack Webb collaborated with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The close connection between the production staff and emergency personnel became a hallmark of the show. Webb had portrayed Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet and produced Adam-12, police shows that strove to convey a sense of reality. Technical advisers included firefighters and paramedics who enhanced the reality of the show. An additional boost to authenticity came with the casting of actor Mike Stoker, who drove Engine 51. Stoker was a firefighter in Los Angeles before joining the cast, and he continued to work in that profession while the series aired and after it ended.

Photo of defibrillator in orange case

In 2000 the National Museum of American History received a donation of materials relating to EMERGENCY! from the Project 51 Committee, a group formed to preserve the legacy of this important program which took its name from Station 51. Some of these objects (helmets, shirts, and coats) are housed with other television costumes in our Culture and the Arts division. Medical-related objects came to the Medicine and Science division.

Two of the objects in the Medicine and Science division were used by actors Kevin Tighe and Randolph Mantooth who portrayed paramedics Roy De Soto and John Gage, respectively, on the show. One is a defibrillator, an electrical device used to shock a patient's heart back into a regular beating pattern (often after a heart attack). The other is a biophone, a portable radio and data transmitter used by paramedics to talk to doctors in the hospital and transmit information, such as electrocardiograms. Although these two units are non-operative, both objects were manufactured by companies that provided operable equipment to real paramedics.

Photo of Biophone in case

Photo of label

These objects illustrate how producers Webb and Robert Cinader aimed to make a program where the lines between reality and drama intersected. Their goal was not simply to entertain, but also to educate the public about life-saving measures. Although the stories presented in the episodes were scripted, they depicted real dangers faced by firefighters and paramedics. The series motivated many people to embark upon careers in the emergency medical field. The Atlanta Constitution reported that after the series premiere, Los Angeles County increased its paramedic units from three to fifteen and credited the show for that increase. One of our colleagues here at the Museum became an emergency medical technician (EMT) because she watched EMERGENCY! It would be interesting to learn how many others made the same career choice due to the influence of Roy De Soto and John Gage.

Connie Holland is a project assistant in Medicine and Science. She has also blogged about radio programming from 1928.