DAVE J. IANNONE
One TV show changed my life.
When I was a wee bit lad of 11 or so, I started tuning in to what was exceptionally poor reception on Channel 24 in Baltimore. There was this awesome show called Emergency! It was all about firefighters and paramedics. Basically, it rocked (for an 11-year-old). I can't even remember what other TV Shows I watched around that time, probably the cool hip shows of the era like the A-Team and Knight Rider. But the reruns of Emergency! were the most festive.
I think I wanted to be Fireman/Paramedic Johnny Gage, but probably over the course of watching those reruns I imagined myself as Chet Kelly, the prankster, or the hard ass but honest Dr. Kelly Brackett. I wanted to go jump in Squad 51 and head off into the sunset. I'd get my chance.
I was so enamored that I went out and got the book Paramedics by James O. Page
, a Los Angeles County Battalion Chief who served as one of the show's technical advisors. In seventh grade, my science project was creating the miniature version of a Prince George's County Paramedic (then MICU) unit (with the help of my grandfather). Then, already quite the little scanner buff in seventh grade, I sent a letter (printed on my fancy dot matrix printed powered by a Commodore 64) to the Chief of the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department
. I said I wanted to do stuff around the firehouse.
The rest is pretty much history. I've been a member of the HVFD since 1988, second longest amongst members that are still generally 'around' next to Chief Emeritus Doc Moltrup. Who, granted, is around more than I am even though he technically lives in Florida.
During that time there have been a ton of ups and downs -- both personally and within the department. Close calls all around. But we've all survived ... and thrived.
In the early 90's we used to hold Emergency! Fests ... borderline 24-hour runs of videotapes of the show. We'd go crazy. Just watch it all night long between calls. Overdosing is an understatement. If you read this Greg, Ron and Peggy, you remember this well. Life was good.
Somehow, I managed to turn my experience in the fire service into a career other than being a firefighter. I took my journalism background and my interest in the Web and turned it into building Firehouse.com in 1998. A year later, I learned of a national tour of Emergency! props that would be enshrined into the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Well, archived at least for future use it turned out.
So I jumped on it. A refinished Squad 51 was going to be on the tour. Johnny and Roy were going to be there too. I called up Jim Page, who had since started JEMS Magazine. We got Firehouse.com involved as a sponsor of the tour. And who knows how I did it, but I got the Hyattsville VFD as the last firehouse stop on the nationwide tour. Squad 51 would be in MY firehouse. Johnny and Roy, too. We went further, and coordinated getting Engineer/Firefighter Mike Stoker (who retired as a real-life L.A. County Captain), Dr. Morton (Ron Pinkard), Firefighter Chet Kelly (aka the Phantom ... actor Tim Donnelly) and Firefighter Marco Lopez (an actor of the same name).
Over the course of three days, we held Emergency! Fest
. It was quite something. A banquet with almost 200 middle-aged women swooning over Johnny Gage and his pals (Roy DeSoto aka actor Kevin Tighe couldn't make it), we held an all our Fest! with thousands swarming on the HVFD to get autographs and see Squad 51. There was a woman sleeping on the stoop of the firehouse when I arrived at 5 a.m. A couple got engaged in the middle of the event.
It was insanity. We used to hold these Emergency! Fests overnight watching Squad 51 roll down the street on television. Now Squad 51 was sitting in the ambulance bay next to the HVFD's squad. Surreal.
But I digress.
During this time, it would have been pretty easy to get sick of Emergency! But I don't think I would have. If it wasn't for one night in the nation's capital.
That was the night that the International Association of Fire Fighters held a special reception for the cast and crew of the show (and those of us who tagged along). Johnny sat with the leadership of the IAFF. The rest of the cast sat at the kid's table. Oops.
The memories of that night haunted me for years. Some of the other cast members dissipated during the course of the dinner. They were found with some IAFF staff at the bar. Well on their way, so to speak. As I drove the van back to Maryland after dinner, the only recollection I have (having blocked most of it out) is several cast members just lashing out at ole Johnny Gage. Apparently, the sight of seeing him get star treatment at a fancy dinner was a bit much. It brought back memories of his persona on the set two decades prior. Or so they said.
The next morning, one unnamed cast member had to be awakened from his hotel room after failing to wake up for the van to the firehouse for the public Emergency! Fest event. When Johnny got his own autograph table a full foot taller (and under a tent) than the rest of the cast, the tension could have been cut with the Jaws of Life.
Happily, the thousands of fans wanted to see the entire cast. Sure, they wanted Johnny Gage. But they were absolutely thrilled to meet the other heroes of Emergency! Many, like me, were inspired to join the fire and rescue service as a result of watching the show. Some a bit older than me even watched it when it was REALLY on television in the mid 70's on NBC.
It was a thrilling, albeit odd, time. The heroes of my youth at my own firehouse. Not to mention those same folks brought back to earth with that one van trip back from dinner. But still, well worth it. I was able to spend quite a bit of time with Jim Page over those days, who it turned out would really be a more appropriate role model and someone I'd share a similar path with -- in terms of being in the fire service media. Perhaps in retrospect it was as much that Paramedics
book, not just the TV show, that laid the groundwork and inspiration to what I've done in the fire service thus far.
Jim passed away a few years ago
and is greatly missed by the entire fire and EMS community.
A few weeks after Emergency! Fest I popped in one of those old school VHS tapes of Emergency! episodes. Two minutes in, I realized something was wrong. Terribly, Terribly wrong.
I couldn't watch it.
Memories of that van ride came back into play. The wake up call. It was all too much. Alas, I thought, Emergency! would never be the same. A few years ago when the DVDs came out of the first few seasons I brought them right away. But never watched them. Would I never see another show? Was it over? That was the case, until a few weeks back.
The local ABC affiliate, Channel 7, has a new digital channel called Retro TV
. It's got Quincy, and the A-Team, plus a ton of other shows. And at 3 p.m., scheduled on my DVR, is Emergency! Today was the series finale, and as such my guide for this blog. It showed the Best Rescues of Emergency! and signed off with Johnny and Roy becoming captains.
I'm sure I'll probably burn myself out a bit over the coming weeks watching these episodes where the blood pressure is almost always 120/80 and D5W and Ringers are the medical drugs of choice for every emergency. I'll be able to speed through the responses with the DVR, downsizing the average episode to about 15 minutes. But maybe, just maybe, that will be enough to prevent me from burning out this time around.
Maybe reliving what got me into the fire and EMS service to begin with and blocking out those van ride memories will free up my mind to riding those fire trucks again. My EMT long expired, I've got just 100 days as of today to take my refresher and complete the written and practical exam. I'm signed up. I'm ready. Ready to serve the citizens of Prince George's County for another 10,000 calls. Or at least have an EMT card that get used over the holidays when staffing is light.
I don't think its a coincidence that Emergency! is re-entering my life just as I'm getting back involved with the fire service on the Web with Firefighter Nation
and prepping for EMT. Life is full of cycles and recurring themes. Just like the ups and downs of my life at the HVFD and in general, so goes Emergency! in reruns, apparently.
And I owe it all to Johnny and Roy. Actually, forget that, I owe it more to Jim Page.
For more photos from Emergency! Fest in 1999, click here
. For more on the show, visit the Emergency! Wikipedia page here. Emergency is Everywhere Now
! Check out Retro TV
on Channel 7's digital channel (on Comcast), find an RTV affiliate near you
, get it on DVD
and you can also watch some old episodes online on NBC's vintage show site here