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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 www.potomacbooksinc.com/books or at his Web site www.brucehensler.com. Bruce.Hensler@FireRescue1.com.



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