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A look back: Firefighting on TV

The depictions of firefighters on TV have come a long way since the early days — for better or for worse


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.

The early days

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.

modern shows, modern problems?

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 — a quality that makes this show almost seem emblematic of the contemporary fire service with its perceived behavioral problems.

We are in a time where we see with more frequency, it seems, the human problems of firefighters. It makes one almost wish for the 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.

But there’s no denying that working for the fire service has never been that simple.

This article, originally published October 2012, has been updated.

More: 10 TV shows that launched careers in emergency services

Bruce Hensler served as a firefighter from 1976 to 2011 in career, combination and volunteer departments. He previously served as a fire program specialist in the Emergency Response Support Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, retiring in 2017. He also previously served as deputy director of the operations division for the firefighter training program in Maine. Hensler has a master’s degree in public administration. His interest in history led him to write “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service.” More information about his book is available at Connect with Hensler on LinkedIn.