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A Shared History
by Bruce Hensler

A look back: Firefighting on TV

While not as prevalent as cop shows, firefighting and EMS television shows have left their mark, some we'd just as soon forget

By Bruce Hensler

Television viewers in the early 1960s may remember the program "Car 54 Where Are You?" as the sitcom about two hapless members of NYPD. Cop shows are extremely popular television productions; and although the cops have outnumbered the firefighters in Hollywood, the fire service is still well represented.

For firefighters, a very early TV program called "Rescue 8" ran from 1958 to 1960 and then another 10 years or so in syndication. This show featured two actors playing rescue specialists with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, named Wes and Skip.

The next major television program featuring the fire service was "Emergency!" which ran from 1972 to 1979. The story centered on a team of Los Angeles County paramedic-firefighters, Johnny and Roy, and their fellow firefighters at Station 51 (actually LACFD Station 127).

The difference between the two fire service-based rescue shows was the focus on very physical rescues in "Rescue 8" because the concept of emergency para-medicine did not exist before the early 1970s. Moreover, "Rescue 8" did not have Rampart Hospital nurse Dixie McCall played by the singer/actress Julie London.

The series "Firehouse" debuted in early 1974 as a competitive derivative of "Emergency!" and a take-off on the best-selling novel "Report From Engine Co. 82" by Dennis Smith, an FDNY firefighter.

The series was also set in Los Angeles at a small inner-city fire station. Captain Spike Ryerson led the five-man (yes, five) crew of Engine Company 23. He was played by James Drury, star of the TV western series "The Virginian."

Once again situated in Los Angeles, the short-lived series "Code Red" debuted in 1981 and lasted but one season. Here Lorne Green (star of the TV western series "Bonanza") played a former firefighter with two sons — one in the fire service and the other a helicopter pilot. The end of each "Code Red" episode featured the novel concept of offering a fire-safety message.

Today, "Emergency!" is still remembered by firefighters who started the job in the 1970s, as well as many younger fans. Both "Rescue 8" and "Emergency!" put the fire service and firefighters in a professional light.

Not so much about firefighting
We are focused on television, but one movie is worth mentioning. In 1991, "Backdraft" debuted, quickly becoming the highest-grossing film production depicting firefighters. The movie has a cult following focusing not so much on the almost believable storyline, but perhaps more on the absurdities built into the storyline and the numerous use of iconic imagery. Actor Kurt Russell carries this hokey movie single-handedly as Lt. Stephen ‘Bull’ McCaffrey of Engine 17 of the Chicago Fire Department.

The more recent TV firefighter production "Rescue Me" (that ran from 2004 to 2011) may have been less a show for firefighters than a show for people who could not seem to get enough of firefighters in the wake of 9/11. Denis Leary carried the show as a sort of likeable, but troubled New York City firefighter facing down many demons. This show almost seems, unfortunately, somewhat emblematic of the contemporary fire service with its perceived behavioral problems.

We are in a time where we see, it seems, with more frequency the human problems of firefighters. It makes one almost wish for the perceived simpler times of "Rescue 8" and "Squad 51." The fire service's action-orientation and team spirit was the essence of these entertaining Hollywood productions.

Fortune tellers
The firefighter/paramedic was a new concept in the 1970s. Johnny and Roy served as role models for an emergent branch of the firefighting occupation. How many in the fire service back then could foresee the evolution in municipal firefighting from the influence of emergency medicine?

If we had really been paying attention to the world around us in the 1970s, we would have realized that Johnny and Roy were showing us the future. With alarming frequency, too many firefighters and EMTs today are finding their way into trouble.

No matter how you care to look at the possible causes of the problem, there is a problem and it is not good for the fire service or the public. Let us hope that Tommy Gavin and the crew of 62 Truck is not representative of the men and women who staff America's firehouses.

Maybe it is time for dispatch to transmit the call, "Rescue 8, Squad 51 where are you? We need you!" Then again, I have to wonder if the traditional cultural values of humility, virtue and respect held by the TV characters Wes, Skip, Johnny and Roy would stand a chance in a contemporary firehouse.

Just imagine this scenario: Lt. 'Bull' McCaffrey as the lieutenant of a company comprised of Wes, Skip, Johnny and Roy. My bet is on the crew teaching their tough lieutenant a thing or two about good behavior and professional demeanor.

About the author

Bruce Hensler joined the fire service in 1976 and studied fire science. While in college, he boarded fulltime in a suburban Pittsburgh volunteer fire department protecting high-value commercial properties gaining practical experience in firefighting and rescue work. He served as a career firefighter for the McKeesport Fire Department before moving to Maine where he worked in several departments holding career positions as assistant fire chief and fire chief. He went on to the state's firefighter training program from which he retired as deputy director of operations in 2007. He holds a graduate degree in public administration and a certificate in geographic information systems. His interest in the fire service and its history encompasses the human and geographic aspects of responding to emergencies and disasters. He is an active volunteer firefighter and is currently working on a second book about urban volunteer firefighters in the late twentieth-century. He lives in Pennsylvania and is the author of Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service published in 2011 by Potomac Books. More information about his book is available at or at his Web site

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Sandy Hogan Sandy Hogan Tuesday, October 09, 2012 5:34:40 PM This is basically what I have been saying for a long time. Thanks for this great article, Mr. Hensler.
Joe Sillydino Joe Sillydino Tuesday, October 09, 2012 9:48:33 PM in code red lorne green was the fire chief not a former firefighter and they adopted a adam rich who was a juvinal firestarter and put him through the fire explorer program. he got to ride the rig and do drills and hang at the firehouse, which was a taskforce.
Scott Price Scott Price Thursday, October 11, 2012 10:51:03 AM Unfortunately, the fire service today finds itself the victim of television programming to the "lowest common denominator", which in most cases broadcasters, by "careful" study, see their audience at an eighth grade level. People love to see "damaged" heroes now. In the sixties and seventies, you could get away with showing the guys hanging out at the station, worried about why the station dog wasnt eating-we never saw Johnny and Roy at home, rarely saw them out of uniform and the most controversial human element was that Johnny was sort of a "player". I show Emergency to my young crews here at my station and they laugh and point in disbelief at the crews attacking a fire in coats, SCBA and not much else, but the thing is, back then, they were wearing the proper PPE for the period-they wore their SCBA going into a fire, regardless of the fact that you couldn't see their pretty faces or hear a word they were saying- Emergency was a great example for my generation, and was responsible for a great many people "my age" realizing a dream of joining the fire service. The latest "fictional" television shows should be considered an INSULT to any of todays firefighter who doesn't want to be considered a substance and spouse-abusing womanizer. As much as TV wants to emulate emergency services-police, fire, ems, they find their hands tied by ratings and sponsors. The fire service was victorious by a massive letter-writing campaign to get get the series "Trauma" off the air. It is unfortunate that todays demographic wants to see Tommy pouring an entire bottle of Vodka all over himself and wondering if he should light a match, more than they want to see Johnny in what was considered safe PPE in his time, rescue a victim...but in some way, we are to blame for that. So, until the time that todays viewer finds the rescue more entertaining than the rescuer, Television simply needs to stop trying, because the brothers and sisters of emergency services are all becoming the victims.
Mary Glover Mary Glover Thursday, October 11, 2012 10:57:06 AM Yup, disgusting isn't it.
Charles Calhoon Charles Calhoon Thursday, October 11, 2012 4:30:02 PM I thought it was back draft 2012
Jack Nelson Jack Nelson Thursday, October 11, 2012 5:58:53 PM Thank you for a well written article, unfortunately sad but true! Wasn't Richard Roundtree in a short series tv show?
Conley Feaster Conley Feaster Thursday, October 11, 2012 6:01:40 PM My thoughts exactly Scott
Joe FireTruck Joe FireTruck Thursday, October 11, 2012 10:42:13 PM It'sall good. Joe firetruck, Miami, Fl.
Richard John Schager Richard John Schager Sunday, October 14, 2012 6:38:25 PM Emergency is my favorite fireshow.
Dave Bloom Dave Bloom Friday, June 07, 2013 9:09:27 AM That would be "Firehouse". Remember it as a movie, not a series.
Dave Bloom Dave Bloom Friday, June 07, 2013 9:10:16 AM And the son who was a "helicopter pilot" flew a Fire-Rescue bird.
Christopher L. Lubenetski Christopher L. Lubenetski Sunday, August 31, 2014 12:50:56 PM My two sons (now 2 1/2 and 5) watch Emergency! constantly, and recreate the emergencies with their Playmobil or Lego Firefighters. Emergency! is the only show I allow them to watch that deals with the fire service because it is about the rescues and medical calls, not the drama. Also, nothing gory in the shows that they can't watch (worst thing is probably the snake that bites Johnny as both kids do not like snakes, but nothing wrong with that). Bring back shows like Emergency!, Adam-12, SWAT, CHiPs, 241 Robert, etc. we need them to promote the emergency services. In the mean time, we will keep watching MeTV!!!
Brandon Wilson Brandon Wilson Sunday, August 31, 2014 2:55:39 PM Third Watch does anybody remember that one
Michael Fonseca Michael Fonseca Sunday, August 31, 2014 2:58:12 PM Yea. What ever happened to that one.. Use to watch it in my early teen years before it just disappeared.
Michael Fonseca Michael Fonseca Sunday, August 31, 2014 2:58:59 PM A little more modern show but what happened to the Boston Fire show?
Brandon Wilson Brandon Wilson Sunday, August 31, 2014 2:59:42 PM Michael Fonseca they got rid of the good cast that they had and it just went down hill from there lasted 6 seasons
Raymond Dobbins Raymond Dobbins Sunday, August 31, 2014 4:00:33 PM What about third watch and Chicago fire :-)
Stormie Weathers Stormie Weathers Sunday, August 31, 2014 5:05:14 PM i think its realy great to have sites on here like this.they are very helful.and i also have to say i was in my early teens when emergency first came on t.v.i must have realy been paying attention because thanks to that show and the people on there,i saved 3 lives.i had a big crush on randy mantooth,,and seeing pics of him now,hes still ot it lol
Damon C. Poole Damon C. Poole Sunday, August 31, 2014 6:07:50 PM Emergency! is the greatest fire-rescue show of all time, because it was based on real life situations, not made up stuff like today's dramas like to serve up.
Kevin M. Polowy Kevin M. Polowy Sunday, August 31, 2014 6:26:20 PM It's time for an Emergency Movie. Recast and invite all of the surviving original cast members for some type of cameo.
Damon C. Poole Damon C. Poole Monday, September 01, 2014 11:45:57 AM Randy Mantooth has said if they brought it back, it would be without his blessing, because he doesn't think what they did could be made better, and he wouldn't want to spoil it. He has a point.
Kevin Painter Kevin Painter Monday, September 01, 2014 1:18:09 PM I still watch Emergency on Me TV channel every once in a while .
Kevin M. Polowy Kevin M. Polowy Monday, September 01, 2014 6:38:59 PM You have a point. With modern day technology and special effects, a movie could be fantastic. Hell you could make Johnny and Roy Chiefs.
Jessie Dotson Jessie Dotson Tuesday, September 02, 2014 1:42:24 AM If you did not hear one of the lieutenants was killed when the truck on a run ran into a building you can find out more on u tube firehouse USA
Jessie Dotson Jessie Dotson Tuesday, September 02, 2014 1:49:30 AM I served three years first truck out on a vol rescue squad doing auto extractioning because of Johnny & Roy .

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