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Why fire service TV shows matter: Reflecting diversity, authenticity and professionalism

TV can help to tell the story of the fire service as it really is – and as it could be

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“Some people will say that it doesn’t matter how TV portrays firefighters – it’s all just entertainment anyway, and everyone knows it isn’t real. But everyone doesn’t know this,” Linda Willing writes.

I admit it: I watch fire shows on TV.

These shows are a guilty pleasure, but they are also an important indicator of how the fire service is perceived by the general public, as well as how it wants to be seen.

Our world – on the small screen

The history of these dramatic shows began in the 1970s with Emergency!. Over the years, there have been different variations on the theme, including Code Red, Rescue 77, Third Watch and Rescue Me. Currently, four fire department-based dramas are airing on network TV: Chicago Fire on NBC, Station 19 on ABC, and 9-1-1 and 9-1-1: Lone Star, both on Fox. (Tacoma FD on truTV is a little different in that it is purely comedy in a firehouse setting.)

TV series both reflect and influence the culture in which they are created. For example:

  • On Emergency!, the adventures of Johnny Gage as a Los Angeles County Fire Department paramedic had a significant effect on public awareness of the expansion of firefighters’ roles into EMS service.
  • Code Red was ahead of the times by portraying a woman as an accepted and respected firefighter in 1981.
  • Third Watch, which was in production when 9/11 occurred, did a fine job honoring the sacrifices of first responders in real time.
  • Rescue Me frequently focused on the long-term physical and psychological effects on firefighters, especially those who served in New York City on 9/11.

This is all good. But TV fire shows have also done more harm than good at times.

3 values of focus

TV is primarily entertainment. Everyone knows this, and it is to be expected that any TV drama, regardless of its setting, will have character or plot elements that are specifically designed to get attention and keep people watching.

But such plot devices should never get in the way of telling a good firefighter-based story. The job is inherently interesting, dramatic, ridiculous, sad, funny and inspiring. Hollywood writers really don’t have to go to extremes to achieve these goals. And they should never undermine the professionalism of firefighters in doing so.

To truly succeed and lead, beyond just gratuitously entertain, fire-based TV shows should consider three values: diversity, authenticity and professionalism.

Diversity: Regarding diversity, current fire TV shows are doing a good job. The crews portrayed are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, religion and sexual orientation, in fact even to a greater degree than the actual current fire service. The shows also make an effort to include different personality types, interests and back stories among their main characters.

Authenticity: This is a bigger challenge. Although there will always be some poetic license in TV scripts about any profession, there is no need to deliberately and dangerously misrepresent how the job is done. For example, firefighters assigned to a rig for a shift cannot just walk away from that assignment, telling coworkers to “cover for me.” Few, if any, firehouses have mixed-sex locker rooms. Firefighters don’t casually bring family members and friends to work with them. Company officers don’t have the power to hire or fire members of their crews.

Professionalism: Professionalism is a real concern, and one that has often been handled badly by TV dramas. I want to see TV firefighters wearing seatbelts and proper PPE; I want to see them following reasonable (if occasionally overly heroic) strategies and tactics; I want them to conduct themselves as the professionals they are in their interpersonal relationships on duty. This is not to say that firefighters, on TV and in real life, don’t sometimes behave badly. That is part of the authentic experience of firefighting. But to normalize that behavior for the sake of entertainment is not acceptable.

One program that seems to have learned from its early mistakes is Fox’s 9-1-1. I wrote harshly about that show when it first aired, but I continued watching, and am happy to say that the current iteration has moved away from its first worst instincts toward a much better product. The show has had some very good episodes that portray firefighter experience (“Hen Begins,” as one example) and also episodes that depict firefighter culture in both an entertaining and authentic way (the recent “Jinx” comes to mind).

Tell the true story

Some people will say that it doesn’t matter how TV portrays firefighters – it’s all just entertainment anyway, and everyone knows it isn’t real. But everyone doesn’t know this. Most people will never have a close encounter with a firefighter or spend a shift in a fire station. They don’t know what it’s like to run 30 calls in 24 hours, or to respond to the fourth suicide in a week. The general public wants to like and admire firefighters, but they are also open to understanding them. In this regard, TV can help to tell the story of the fire service as it really is and as it could be.

Editor’s note: What’s your all-time favorite fire/EMS TV show? Share in the comments below.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.