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How Paramedics Work

        Health | ER

'Emergency!'
Ron Stewart not only helped create the paramedicine field as we know it today, but he also consulted on the 1970s show "Emergency!"
Ron Stewart not only helped create the paramedicine field as we know it today, but he also consulted on the 1970s show "Emergency!"
Bettmann/Corbis

As mentioned in the intro, Ron Stewart served as a consultant to the TV show "Emergency!" That series, which ran from 1972 to 1977, was much more than an entertaining drama about emergency medicine; it was a highly influential pop cultural phenomenon that had an important impact on the burgeoning field of paramedicine. In fact, scholars have argued that it helped create the cultural conditions necessary for the nationwide establishment of a paramedical system.

The show followed the exploits of John Gage and Roy DeSoto, two firefighters who had received special training as paramedics. Together, they were Squad 51, operating out of Station 51 in Los Angeles. The link with firefighting was, and still is, true to life: Today, many firefighting crews include a paramedic team. The show adhered to reality in other ways too. Shot in quasi-documentary style, its cast included many real-life personalities who played themselves, including the dispatcher and several firefighters.

The show's pilot episode revolves around the Wedworth-Townsend Paramedic Act, a piece of California state legislation designed to authorize paramedics to perform medical procedures in the field. Until Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the act into law on July 14, 1970, only doctors and nurses were permitted to treat patients using medically invasive procedures like defibrillation or IVs. The doctor who trains Gage and DeSoto is opposed to the idea that "hose jockeys" should become authorized medical personnel, but when they save lives, he changes his mind.

When "Emergency!" premiered in 1972, there were no more than a dozen paramedic units across North America. Ten years later, more than 50 percent of Americans lived within 10 minutes of emergency medical aid. While "Emergency!" was only one of many forces behind this massive change in access to paramedicine, the show has been credited with introducing a mass audience to the idea of prehospital care. By some accounts, good Samaritans may have saved lives using procedures they'd seen on "Emergency!" They may also have done some damage. This happened enough that the show devoted a portion of an episode to dissuade untrained civilians from performing potentially dangerous interventions [source: Yokely].


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