Veteran fire service members who were active in the mid-1970s are familiar with the television show “Emergency.” Younger members have probably seen some of the reruns.
As a result of “cord cutting,” I stumbled across a few reruns of the popular show. For the uninitiated, it was filmed from 1972 to 1977 and is based on the emergence of fire service paramedics. The show helped bring the fire service into the homes of millions of television viewers. Paramedics Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe) and John Gage (Randolph Mantooth) were always portrayed as the most professional of service providers. For television purposes, they responded out of Los Angeles County Fire Department Station 51 (though it was another station) as Squad 51 along with Engine 51. Squad 51 was a mundane one-ton Dodge pickup truck chassis with a utility body.
The one thing that strikes me about the series is how much has changed in firefighter health and safety. It was the same year the show concluded (1977) that the National Fire Protection Association started recording line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), with that year claiming 157 firefighter lives. The following year the number rose to 174. The number did not drop below 100 until 1992. In 2019, the number was reduced to 48! The safety initiatives that have been implemented since the late 1970s have made a difference.
The first noticeable change in fire apparatus since 1977 is the disappearance of the canopy cab or open cab apparatus. Going hand in hand with the now enclosed cab is the use of seat belts (with exceptions), as firefighters could no longer stand while responding to incidents. The enclosed cab also created a quieter response, and hearing loss among firefighters is now pretty much a thing of the past.
Apparatus visibility has been improved by retro-reflective striping and the application of chevrons on the rear of rigs. Note: The popularity of “blacking” out apparatus is to the detriment of firefighter safety, in my opinion. What is safer about these blacked-out rigs?
The development of LED warning lights has lessened the electrical load on apparatus, and warning lights are now considerably more effective, perhaps too bright in certain applications.
I even saw a hose clamp in use on one of the episodes. Though I have never seen one used on a fire scene, these dangerous items have pretty much disappeared since the Insurance Services Office no longer requires them. Releasing an engaged hose clamp is a risky task if you have never used one.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Perhaps the most glaring safety observation when watching the firefighters in “Emergency” is the lack of turnout pants, and pull-up boots are not even being worn! The lower torso is protected by the station uniform pants and the station uniform shoes. Amazing!
Another unbelievable sight, compared to today’s fire service, is the often disregard for the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). It is noteworthy that the SCBA being used in the earlier shows has the waist-mounted regulators in lieu of the more efficient face mask-mounted regulator with a nose cup. Today’s face-mounted SCBA regulators with nose cups allow for the exhaled air to be discharged into the atmosphere. In comparison, the waist-mounted regulators with the “suction hoses” connected to the face mask allow for some of the exhaled air to be reinhaled. The oxygen content of exhaled air is around 16%, compared to the normal of 21%. This causes firefighters to breath harder to get their needed oxygen.
Along the lines of PPE, we have seen a few important new health and safety products since Roy DeSoto and John Gage portrayed paramedics in “Emergency.” During the 1970s, there was no thought of a protective hood, personal alert safety system devices, or thermal imaging cameras. Today’s firefighters are much better protected, and there are fewer and fewer fireground deaths and injuries.
Station 51 did not have any diesel exhaust removal system, and there was no thought of having hot zones for contaminated PPE and equipment. In fact, there was nothing about contamination control, as that was not a consideration during the time.
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The purpose of this column is to show how fortunate today’s firefighters are compared to the 1970s. If we were operating in the same manner with the same equipment, the LODD rate might exceed 500 or more today. As we emerge from a pandemic, we need to be ever mindful of the advances we have made and always pursue additional advances.
“Station 51 KMG365.”
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 40-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).