The 411 on Rescue 911

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“This program contains true stories of rescues.
All of the 9-1-1 calls you will hear are real.
Whenever possible, the actual people involved have helped us reconstruct the events as they happened.”

If you recognize that disclaimer, you're one of the millions who tuned in on Tuesday nights for Rescue 911. While it's been off the air for years, many still remember their favorite episode, and many young people pursued a career in emergency services because of the dramatic tales of these hometown heroes.

Join us as we investigate the history of this influential television show that touched so many lives.

Reality TV with a Positive Spin

According to William Shanter's book, Up Til Now: The Autobiography, the inspiration for Rescue 911 came from an episode of the popular the radio show The Osgood File.

The episode focused on a crime that occurred in Arlington, Texas, in December 1988. Late one night, a robber broke into a family's apartment, waking the father, who confronted the intruder. Meanwhile, the man's nine-year old daughter called 911, and inadvertently recorded her 14-year old brother killing the would-be crook with a single shotgun blast. Kim LeMasters, the president of CBS's Entertainment Division, was listening to the show and wondered if other, similar recordings existed.

After acquiring some recorded 911 calls, CBS hired Arnold Shapiro, a producer best known for his Oscar-winning documentary Scared Straight, to produce a few one-hour specials based on the calls. When they started considering hosts for the show, LeMasters suggested Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek's Mr. Spock. Upon hearing Nimoy's name, Shapiro's thought of William Shatner, Nimoy's Trek co-star who had more recently been the lead police officer on T.J. Hooker. Because policemen were often there to help in most rescue situations, Shapiro thought the audience's association with Shatner's previous role seemed like a good fit.

The special Rescue 911 shows debuted in April and May 1989. While other reality shows, like Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted, focused on unsavory subjects like murder, robberies, and missing people, Rescue 911 presented stories and reenactments of the positive, life-saving actions of America’s paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and other emergency service personnel. This approach helped win over audiences looking to get away from the doom and gloom of similar programming. The one-hour specials were both big hits in the ratings, so CBS decided to make the show a regular series starting in the fall of 1989.

Rescue 911's ratings remained solid and went on to win a 1990 People’s Choice Award for “Best New Dramatic Show” after its first season. The show's popularity carried over into 1991, when episodes were licensed to as many as 45 foreign markets, including Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, and South Africa. In an effort to show off local emergency medical services, many regions filmed their own segments and edited them into the otherwise American episode. Of course this success also encouraged foreign copycats like the BBC’s 999, which was virtually the same format as Rescue 911.

The show would run for seven seasons, totaling 186 hour-long episodes, almost always appearing on Tuesday nights. But because the show was so easily edited down into shorter segments, it became the perfect filler for when CBS needed to kill 15 or 30 minutes after sporting events or movies. Despite its early popularity and versatility, the show's ratings began to wane by the mid-90s, and it was canceled in 1996. The show lingered in syndication for years, with old episodes appearing on the Discovery Health Channel as late as 2005. Today, Rescue 911 is no longer on the air, but clips and even entire episodes can be easily found on YouTube.

Watching TV Can Save Your Life

An unexpected but welcome side-effect of Rescue 911 was that everyday citizens were learning how to save lives. During its seven seasons, at least 350 people wrote to the producers describing how they had used techniques learned by watching the show that contributed to saving a life or preventing an accident. It became such a common occurrence that two special episodes were produced, 100 Lives Saved and 200 Lives Saved, that featured some of these amazing stories. Perhaps the most dramatic was the case of the Murphy family in St. Louis, Missouri.

It was December 1989 and the Murphys were busy moving into their new home. While Glenn Murphy carried in boxes, his wife, Annie, was unpacking inside. When Annie said she was cold, Glenn lit the pilot on the furnace to warm up the house. Annie stayed behind as Glenn went to get their kids from school. Upon his return, she said her eyes and nose burned, she was nauseous, and had a pounding headache. When her condition didn't improve a few hours later, the couple rushed to the emergency room, leaving the children home alone.

As the two sat in the ER's waiting room, they watched that night’s episode of Rescue 911 on TV. On the show, a woman was discussing a sudden illness that had come over her one day. Oddly enough, the symptoms she described sounded exactly like what Annie had been feeling. When the episode later revealed that the mysterious illness had been brought on by a gas leak, the Murphys became concerned about their children back home.

Panic-stricken, Glenn sped to the new house and found his kids nearly unconscious, suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a gas leak from the furnace. Thankfully, Glenn was able to get the children out of the house before any serious injury occurred. Firefighters arrived on the scene, shut off the gas, and rushed the kids to a local hospital where they were treated and released. Had Rescue 911 not been on that night, the Murphy children might not have made it.

A 911 Reunion

You'd be surprised how many EMT, police officers, and firefighters in their mid-30s today would cite watching Rescue 911 as an important part of what made them pursue their chosen career. Kyle Bennett was too young to watch the show when it originally aired, but the program still had a profound impact on his career and his life.

When Kyle was just a toddler, he was bitten by a poisonous snake in his family’s Louisiana backyard during a 1991 Fourth of July barbecue. Though his heart stopped beating twice during the scary turn of events, his life was saved thanks to the quick medical support of local paramedics and hospital staff. A few months later, Rescue 911 aired a segment on Kyle's snake bite, complete with a reenactment by the entire family and medical staff.

Bennett grew up to be a perfectly healthy and happy young man who, inspired by his own traumatic experience, went on to become an EMT. While studying for his certification in June 2009, his instructors learned that his story had been on Rescue 911, and decided to track down the people that had appeared on the segment - EMT George Schwindling, Dr. Philip Gardner, and 911 dispatcher Countess Carter (sadly, no Shatner). The reunion not only allowed them a chance to watch the episode again and relive the events of the day, it also gave Bennett the rare opportunity to shake hands with the people who had given him a second chance at life. (Watch the reunion here.)

Emergency Merchandise

Not only was Rescue 911 a ratings hit—it became a popular merchandising vehicle as well. During the 1990s, five Rescue 911 books were published, recounting stories from the show with themes like Kid Heroes, Humorous Rescues, and Animal Rescues. You could also buy the Rescue 911 Family First Aid & Emergency Care Book, an at-home reference guide for basic emergency procedures.

If you wanted to relive the excitement of the show, you could order tapes of early episodes by calling an 800 number. But as the show progressed, this service was abandoned. Otherwise, you’d have to wait until 1997’s Rescue 911: World’s Greatest Rescues, the show’s one and only home video release. The tape was little more than previously seen rescue segments from the U.S. and foreign versions, spliced together with a new, non-Shatner narrator. But, let’s face it, without Shatner it’s just not Rescue 911.

Of course we wouldn’t want to leave the kids out of all the Rescue 911 excitement!

In 1993, Marchon released the Rescue 911: Chopper Rescue slot car racing set, with two Rescue 911 SUVs that sped along the track until they encountered a huge gap marked with a sign that read “Bridge Out Ahead”. From there, a magnetic helicopter would snatch up the car, carry it safely across the gorge, and drop it safely back onto the track on the other side.

[Image courtesy of Chris Poibug/Internet Pinball Machine Database]

Gottlieb borrowed the magnetic helicopter idea when they produced 4000 copies of a 1994 pinball game based on the show. Amidst a flurry of siren sound effects and plenty of flashing red lights, the magnetic helicopter lifted the ball over the board, allowing the player to release the chopper’s payload onto targets below to receive bonus points.

If pinball wasn’t your thing, there was an LCD handheld video game made by MGA, also released in 1993. In the game, you play a firefighter trying to put out the flames coming from a burning building. Your extinguisher only has 15 shots, but you can keep collecting new extinguishers as they randomly appear on the side of the screen.

[Images courtesy of Hollywood Diecast]

For kids with a longer attention span, ERTL had three Rescue 911 glue-together scale models – a police car, an ambulance, and a helicopter – in their 1993 line-up. One side of each box had a brief synopsis of a rescue story from the show.

Even Matchbox released Rescue 911 cars in 1991, complete with electronic flashing lights and sirens. Models included an ambulance, a police car, a police van, and a “fire observer” van, among others. The front of the packaging proudly stated the toys were “from the hit TV series”; the back had safety tips for kids to cut out and collect.
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Did you or someone you know become an EMT, a firefighter, or police officer because of Rescue 911? If you were a fan of the show, are there any particularly exciting episodes you'll never forget? Tell us in the comments!

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January 31, 2011 - 5:34am
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