A Man Known By His Voice More Than His Name
A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles County Fire Department lost one of its most famous men. Even though almost everyone involved in emergency services since the seventies knew of this man, few actually knew his name. His name was Sam Lanier.
Sam started in the Los Angeles County Fire Department in late 1958 as a civilian fire dispatcher after leaving the service. Sam was best known for his part as the voice of the dispatcher in the television hit series Emergency! which starred Randolph Mantooth and Kevin Tighe. The show, as most Paramedics and Firefighters today know, focused on the start of the model paramedic system in the Los Angeles County, California, Fire Department in the early 1970's -- a system that would soon spread like wildfire across the United States after the airing of the prime time television show.
Sam's voice could be heard in each of the 120-plus regular episodes during the six seasons of the show's airing, both over the opening credits and every dispatch that the then-fictitious "Station 51" was sent to by L.A. According to Jim Page's book The Emergency Companion, Page cited his reason for recommending Sam to the then-producer Bob Cinader: "He had a great voice and an even cadence while broadcasting... over the years I never heard him lose his composure or confuse his role with that of a field commander. "In another portion of Page's book he commented, "Speaking into my portable radio, I asked the L.A. Dispatch Center for a radio test. And in reply, Sam Lanier's cool baritone came over the airway." Just as the show Emergency! inspired many of us to choose careers in EMS and the fire service, Sam sparked an interest for me to become a fire dispatcher and later become involved in EMS and police work.
Being the Emergency! fan that I am, I set out on a quest a few years ago to locate the man behind this famous voice whose name never appeared in any of the show's credits. After contacting Brian Humphrey at the Los Angeles City Fire Department's Public Information Office, I was directed towards the County's Retirement Association, who was gracious enough to forward a letter to Sam for me. Lo and behold , a few weeks later, Sam personally wrote a letter to me and enclosed a photograph of himself for the show's era. He was tickled pink that someone would go to such great lengths to track down such a "star."
Over the period of the next year or so, I kept in occasional contact with Sam, both over the telephone and through computer e-mail over the internet. Sam would tell me stories about what it was like to be part of such a monumental program and the close relationship he shared with the other members of the cast and production crew. Since the fire department I'm now associated with is coincidentally numbered Station 51, I sent him t-shirts and patches from our company to amuse him.
Sam retired from the fire department soon after the television series stopped production in 1977. After being diagnosed with a heart problem, he entered the private sector of the fire service as a Fire Safety Advisor to film production companies filming in the Los Angeles area, a position that he maintained until his untimely death in May of 1997.
I decided to give my ol' buddy Sam a call in early June to see what he had been up to. It had been about a month since we had chatted last. His son David had answered the phone and I asked to speak to his father. He kind of hesitated and eventually told me in a cracking voice that Sam had passed away a few weeks prior. Apparently, an accident had occurred in front of his residence in Culver City and Sam went out to try and assist at the crash scene. Sam collapsed at the scene from a heart attack. Sam died doing what he had devoted most of his life to, helping the citizens of Los Angles County in their time of need. Sam was 65 years young. Both the fire service and the television show Emergency! suffered a great loss that day. I also lost a good friend, and console microphones at L.A. County that he had once spoken into shall know his voice no more. Sam will be deeply missed by all of us.
Originally published in the August 1997 issue of Straight Streams, A Los Angeles County Fire Department Magazine, also published in the Nov/Dec 1998 issue of 9-1-1 Magazine. Eric was a close friend to Sam and wrote this article about him. We'd like to thank Mr. Ruggeri for giving us permission to use his article and to Brian for providing us with information.
We'd like to thank Mr. Lanier's family for the photographs and their willingness to share their memories of him with us. (Thanks Wendy & George for additional photos)
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