YOSEMITE, Calif. — Yosemite’s biggest TV star — a 35-year-old fire engine that helped change the public’s awareness of pre-hospital emergency medicine in the United States — is heading back to Southern California.
Old Engine 7, which was seen by millions of viewers in the 1970s when it was Engine 51 on the TV series “Emergency!” will soon occupy a place of honor in the County of Los Angeles Fire Museum in Bellflower.
“The engine is a great piece of history,” says Yosemite volunteer firefighter Gary Rosenfeld, who has ridden to calls in it for six years and appreciates its celebrity status.
“The engine was in a TV show that brought to light the importance of paramedic programs, and we’ve had a huge number of fans of the show come to visit,” he says. “People stop by and want to have their picture taken with the engine. We’ll miss that, but it’s time to bring new technology to our station and for the engine to take its place in history.”
Engine 7 is being replaced by a 1991 Pierce Arrow pumper that can shoot water onto flames at 1,750 gallons per minute, nearly double the 1,000 gallon per minute capability of Engine 7. Rosenfeld says the new engine, which also will bear the number 7, was purchased from a fire department in Pennsylvania. Once it is ready to go, old number 7 will be loaded onto a truck and hauled to its new home.
“Emergency!” aired weekly on NBC from 1972 to ’77 and in six two-hour specials through 1979. It debuted at a time when most lives were saved in hospitals, not at accident or heart attack scenes.
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) had been developed in 1962, but the idea that people other than doctors could use IV drugs and defibrillators in the field to save lives was in its infancy.
In 1969, the Los Angeles County Fire Department certified six firefighters who had been trained to use these sophisticated medical procedures. A year later, the state legislature passed a bill allowing paramedics to provide emergencymedical treatment in the field without the presence of a nurse.
But it was the power of television that brought the value of these life-saving techniques to the attention of the general public. Jack Webb and Robert Cinader, who had worked together on the police drama “Adam-12,” became interested in the Los Angeles paramedic program and “Emergency!” was born.
Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Joe Woyjeck has fond memories of the TV series. His uncle, Rocky Doke, was the eighth paramedic certified in Los Angeles County and was hired as a technical adviser by the show’s producers.
“I used to go down to Universal Studios with my uncle and watch them film the show,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Like so many others, however, Woyjeck watched “Emergency!” regularly. He says the show inspired him to become a firefighter, and he wound up being the 3,894th paramedic certified in Los Angeles County.
Woyjeck also is vice president of the County of Los Angeles Fire Museum Association, which will soon take possession of Engine 7. He says the engine will receive some minor restoration work before it goes on display, adding, “We want to make it look just like it did when it was on TV.”
Although the engine’s Half Dome logo and number 7 will be replaced with Los Angeles County Fire Department lettering and its old number 51, nothing will erase its 21-year record of reliable service in Yosemite.
Rosenfeld, a volunteer fire captain, has seen six years of duty with the engine. During regular working hours, he is manager of transportation for Delaware North, the Yosemite National Park concessionaire. But he and six other park employees are on call 24 hours a day as volunteer firefighters. They serve as part of Delaware North’s agreement with the National Park Service to provide emergency response services to Yosemite Valley residents.
“We get 100 to 120 calls a year,” Rosenfeld says. “We respond to structure fires, automobile accidents and other emergencies. The neat thing about this engine is that it’s never missed a run. It’s always been there for us and has never let us down.”
A lot of people don’t realize that Yosemite Valley is the equivalent of a small city, says park spokesman Scott Gediman.
“On any given summer night we’ll have 4,000 to 5,000 people spending the night in Yosemite Valley, employees as well as visitors,” he says. “We need a fire station.”
The station, operated by Delaware North, is in the heart of Yosemite Village. Fans of “Emergency!” who learn of the engine’s location on Web sites devoted to the show often swing by to take a look at the engine during visits to Yosemite.
“It’s been a focal point,” Gediman says. “People are drawn to it.”
Gediman grew up in North Hollywood, not far from Universal Studios, where “Emergency!” was filmed.
“I remember watching Gage and DeSoto every Saturday night,” he says. “It was one of my favorite shows.”
Johnny Gage, played by Randolph Mantooth, and Roy DeSoto, played by Kevin Tighe, were the paramedics in “Emergency!” who were based at the mythical Los Angeles County fire station that was home to engine 51.
“One of the things about the engine that is so interesting is that it was used to film a TV series before it became a working fire engine,” Gediman says. “It came to Yosemite after fighting fires on TV.”
The engine, a P-80 Ambassador model pumper, was built in 1973 by the Ward LaFrance Truck Co. in Elmira Heights, N.Y. After a coast-to-coast promotional tour, it went straight to work at Universal Studios, replacing the show’s original Engine 51, a 1965 open-cab Crown Firecoach, which was used for the first two seasons.
After its TV days ended, the engine was assigned to a fire station at Universal Studios. Then in 1987, MCA, which at the time owned both Universal and the Yosemite Park and Curry Co., then Yosemite’s concessionaire, needed to replace a 1937 Seagrave pumper at the Yosemite Village fire station.
Engine 51 was transported to Yosemite with an agreement that it would be turned over to the Los Angeles County Fire Museum at the end of its service in the park.
Even during its years as a Yosemite Village fixture, Engine 7 never completely shed its Southern California ties.
The engine still has ID labels inside dating from its Universal Studios days, says Woyjeck, who recently visited Yosemite to inspect the old pumper. And its license plate — YCS E51 — is a strong reminder of its original TV role. The letters stand for “Yosemite Concessions Service Engine 51.”
“It’s awesome to have it back,” Woyjeck says. “In our mind, the museum is where it belongs.”
The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559) 441-6383.