Rescue 911 found its way into our lives in the late ‘80s. Although it seemed a bit cheesy at the time, today, it’s considered a groundbreaking series that saved lives and inspired hundreds of people to become emergency medical service workers themselves.
The show was never intended to serve as a teaching tool, but it saved 350 lives. Thanks to the show’s advice, one woman checked the wires in her house and saved her baby girl from a fire. Another man rushed home to save his kids from a heater that was releasing toxic gas.
Let’s see how this legendary show came to be.
The Creator of Cops Pitched the Idea of a 911 Show but Was Rejected
Before creating the show Cops, John Langley passed through nearly every studio in Hollywood to pitch his string of ideas for reality shows. He landed a meeting with Steve Chao at Fox. He suggested some ideas he truly believed in, including one about funny home videos, another about what happens when you phone 911, and lastly, one following rescue workers on 911 calls.
Steve Chao disliked the idea of Rescue 911 and passed, saying, “Somebody else will do it, I don’t wanna do it.” Chao’s laziness cost him a hefty sum of money he could have made if he had listened to Langley. CBS ended up developing their 911 series right around the same time.
The Birth of Rescue 911
The president of CBS’s Entertainment Division, Kim LeMasters, heard a radio show called the Osgood Files which played a bone-chilling tape of a 911 call in the story. Kim was instantly drawn into the radio program, which prompted her to go after some 911 tapes herself.
Voilà, Rescue 911 was born! Even though Langley didn’t convince Fox to do 911 calls, Fox gave him the green light to go ahead with Cops. But unfortunately for the network, they missed out on Rescue 911, which ran on CBS for seven successful seasons.
Scared Straight’s Director Was Hired to Scare Rescue 911’s Viewers
CBS launched its 911 reality show in 1989. They wanted to give it more of a documentary feel than a regular reality show, so they decided to use reenactments and hired Oscar-winning director Arnold Shapiro to be their producer.
Shapiro had directed the documentary Scared Straight−a bizarre, creepy documentary centered around a group of young delinquents and their face-to-face meetings with convicted criminals who yell at them in the hopes of scaring them away from a life of crime.
The Actual Survivors Did the Reenactments
CBS asked Arnold Shapiro to produce that same touch of danger on Rescue 911. The producer used real footage from hospitals and ambulance rides and the audio from the actual 911 call. To keep the show as close to the real event as possible, most of the reenactments were done by the actual people who experienced the emergency.
Rescue 911 wasn’t Arnold Shapiro’s last docuseries. He created Beyond Scared Straight, Brat Camp, where he took spoiled kids out to the wilderness to toughen them up. Shapiro finally broke free of those documentaries when he started working on the hit show Big Brother.
The Show Was Meant to Be a Two-Episode Special
The thing viewers remember most about the show is probably the hosting segment featuring William Shatner. He would star at the show’s beginning and introduce each case in his serious (yet slightly ridiculous) manner.
In his autobiography, Shatner wrote that CBS initially believed in making just two one-hour specials, so they contracted him for two sessions. When they realized that the viewers longed for more than two episodes, they had to renegotiate their contract with him.
It Pays to Know How to Negotiate
William Shatner had just finished his contract with ABC, and he was in the mood to get paid. So, he insisted that CBS give him enough money to make it worth his time. According to Arnold Shapiro, “…the deal that we made was very favorable., during that time, they probably never had been a deal like that in television.”
In other words, William Shatner was paid more than enough for his short segments. His hosting gig was far from difficult. He worked just one day a week, showing up every other Sunday to shoot the intros and outros.
The Show Was Filmed in Real Call Centers
Most of the hosting segments were filmed in call centers, one of which was a real call center in Huntington Beach, California. Rescue 911 used several locations in Southern California throughout the show’s first two years of taping, but the Huntington Beach call center ended up being the show’s “home base.”
Even though cameras were rolling, the center kept working throughout the filming sessions. This meant that days “on set” included a host of interruptions. William Shatner was perfectly fine with having to pause several times. He felt that the real call center added truth to the series.
Some Emergency Workers Weren’t Happy With the Show
Even though the stories on each show were based on actual 911 calls, and the people reenacting the scenes were the actual survivors, the show still added its fair share of drama to excite the viewers even more. Rescue workers had difficulty watching the show; they complained that the show’s happy endings were pretty misleading and set up far-fetched expectations for new workers.
By far, the most unrealistic bit on the show was the running. The series always showed the rescue workers rushing to the scene when, in reality, they have extremely heavy things to carry, which makes it impossible for them to run as fast.
The Show Had to Be Renamed in New Zealand
When Rescue 911 aired in New Zealand, viewers were confused. The country’s emergency number is 111, and even though they put a disclaimer at the top of every episode saying, “Don’t call 911,” viewers didn’t notice it.
The show had to be retitled Rescue 111 so that viewers would stop calling ambulances that were oceans away. In Australia, a similar problem surfaced. Their emergency number is 000, and a man from Sydney dialed 911 when he saw his building was on fire. He spent 10 minutes trying to get an ambulance to sail across from New Jersey.
It Boosted the EMS System
Rescue 911 changed the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) field. When the show first aired, paramedics weren’t as appreciated across the country. Moreover, emergency systems differed depending on the state or town, and many places didn’t have 911 at all.
Because the show highlighted the importance of a reliable EMS system, cities started showing their support by improving their streamlined rescue services. “The American public saw what they could have in their communities and demanded it,” said Dr. Peter T. Pons.
It Inspired People to Work in the Emergency Field
The show was so loved that many of its viewers decided to go into the emergency field. A lot of current EMTs admitted that Rescue 911 inspired their choice of career. 2016’s EMT of the year, Allison Salamoni, thanked host William Shatner in her acceptance speech.
The show didn’t just affect future emergency workers, but it also inspired Drunk History’s hit comedy. Actor Derek Waters was obsessed with the show, especially the cheesy reenactments. Those recreations prompted him to develop the hit comedy.
They Became Involved in a Hideous Murder Crime
Rescue 911’s cases weren’t normally very dark, except for one that followed a shooting in Boston. A man named Charles Stewart phoned 911 and cried that someone had shot him and his pregnant wife. Rescue 911’s cameramen arrived before the news crew and witnessed the horrifying aftermath before anyone else.
The pregnant wife and unborn child were taken to the hospital where, sadly, they died of their wounds. Charles was found in critical condition as he was shot in the stomach. The police questioned the 911 crew for any information and asked for a copy of their footage.
A Terrible Plot Twist
The Boston shooting story unfolded unexpectedly. As it turns out, Charles Stewart shot his wife to get her insurance money, and he shot himself in the stomach to make the case seem more realistic. Rescue 911 held onto a copy of the footage, but they waited for Stewart’s side of the story before aired the episode.
They wanted to get his take on things. But when he recovered, he wasn’t willing to provide any information. A while later, he committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. Rescue 911 eventually returned to Boston to add all the new information of the case, after which they released the episode.
350 Lives Saved by the Show
In some instances, Rescue 911 ended up being more helpful than the doctors in the hospital. A family of four kids had recently moved into a house when the wife suddenly fell ill. By that evening, she was so sick that her husband drove her to the emergency room.
Incredibly, the hospital’s waiting room happened to be showing an episode of Rescue 911, where a woman fell ill out of the blue after her husband had trouble with their new heater. In the episode, they found out her sickness was due to carbon monoxide poisoning from the malfunctioning heater.
The Couple Caught Onto the Similarities
Sitting in the E.R., the husband and wife realized this was likely the cause of their sickness as well, and the first thing that came to their minds was – the kids! They had four children at home, sleeping in a house that was gradually filling with gas.
The couple rushed home and then brought their kids to the hospital. Luckily, no harm was done. But doctors told them that if the kids had stayed in the house for another half hour, they probably would have died.
CBS Kept Updating Their List of Lives Saved
This family’s frightening tale is just one of over 300 stories of real people whose lives have been saved thanks to the show. Over time, letters poured into CBS’s office, reporting more and more incredible stories. To highlight the moving tales, the studio decided to make a special episode titled 100 Lives Saved.
But after more life-saving stories continued to pour in, the studio made another special episode titled 200 Lives Saved. William Shatner later wrote in his book that CBS received close to 350 letters. It looks like CBS needs to make another special!
They Published Six Books
Rescue 911 might not be one of the most memorable shows out there, but it was a huge deal back in the day. The series was so loved that the studio decided to publish five additional rescue tales, including family guides to emergencies.
The books included Rescue 911: Kid Heroes and Rescue and 911: Humorous Rescues. Another volume talks about animal rescues, and another one deals with “the best of,” full of the most extraordinary rescue stories out there.
Fun Theme Toys
Rescue 911 inspired people to join the EMS and save real lives. It also created a series of books. As if all that wasn’t enough, the show decided to release its very own line of toys so that young viewers could reenact their favorite scenes at home.
The toys included a cop car and an ambulance, a rescue-chopper, and even a pinball machine. The Rescue 911 arcade featured everything from sirens to 911 calls to cases of people stuck in floods and wildfires. The only thing missing was William Shatner’s voice.
Another Star Trek Legend Was Suggested as the Host
The president of CBS Entertainment, Kim LeMasters, originally wanted Leonard Nimoy to host the show. Star Trek’s Mr. Spock was a reasonable pick, considering he had performed in the gripping docuseries In Search Of for six whole seasons.
William Shatner was eventually hired because he had just wrapped up six seasons as a first responder on T.J. Hooker. He ended up being a great choice! He knew exactly how to deliver the lines compellingly and excitingly.
A Potential Reboot!
In 2018, Variety magazine reported that a reboot of the original Rescue 911 was in the making! And the best part? William Shatner agreed to return as a host. The show’s new version would be a “live look at first responders taking real emergency calls every week.”
The show will include a crew of “actual firefighters, EMTs, and police personnel discussing the emergency calls in real-time.” CBS is currently developing the project, yet no network is attached to it just yet.
A Host of International Versions
The Rescue 911 concept took off around the world. It was adapted into more than 45 international versions, each one promoting their area’s emergency phone number. The U.K. version, for example, was called 999 (after the U.K.’s emergency number).
The British version aired in 1992 and ran on BBC One to 2003. The show was an incredible hit and was hosted by renowned journalist and news anchor Michael Buerk, who did a great job hosting like Shatner.
Rescate 911 (Spanish for Rescue 911) featured episodes from America’s version of Rescue 911 but dubbed over in Spanish. The dubbed version was produced in Venezuela by Etcétera Group, the same company responsible for the Spanish dubbings of other shows like SpongeBob SquarePants.
The Latin American dubbed version aired in Mexico for three years, from 1993 to 1996, on TV Azteca. It was also a hit in Ecuador, where it aired from 1994 to 2000 on RTS. It looks live. Everyone around the world loves this show!
The Show Saved Ms. Lindsay’s Baby, Allison
Ms. Lindsay was a huge fan of the show. She watched it every week, listening intently to the emergency crew’s instructions as they saved the lives of many people. Little did she know that the show would end up saving her baby’s life.
Allison was just an infant when she was nearly burned alive by an old wire behind the dresser in her room. Luckily, her mom had heard one of the show’s firefighters talking about fire prevention, and it led her to check the wiring in Allison’s room. “I can’t tell you how I felt and what could have happened had I not been watching,” Ms. Lindsay exclaimed in shock.
Kyle Bennett’s Snake Scare
Kyle Bennett was just a toddler when the show first aired, yet it had a tremendous impact on his life. He was bitten by a snake in his family’s backyard in Louisiana during a Fourth of July BBQ celebration. His little heart stopped beating after the bite.
Thankfully, he was rescued and resuscitated thanks to the quick and efficient response of the medical staff. His case was aired on the show. Inspired by his event and the help of the medical crew, Kyle grew up to be an EMT himself.
The Show Covered Nearly Every Possible Scenario
Common situations on the show included crimes, shootings, fires, car crashes, childbirth emergencies, drownings, gas leaks, electrocutions, and even suicide attempts. The show covered nearly everything to cover in terms of ways one can get injured or die.
Even though the show featured serious emergencies, it occasionally told the story of humorous cases, ones that weren’t life-threatening situations and even some false alarms. For example, one episode dealt with a burglar who got stuck upside-down in the chimney of a house he was trying to rob.
More Funny Cases
Other silly cases included a little boy who got stuck in a laundry chute during a game of hide and seek. He hid so well that he ended up winning the game! But it looks like he hid so well that he had to be rescued.
Another funny (yet painful) 911 call was when one boy got his tongue stuck inside a freezer while trying to get ice cream. A different case involved a dog who stepped on the 911 button after getting tangled in the phone cord (he was in danger of choking but thankfully survived).
Deaths on the Show
Although most of the stories ended with all lives being rescued, there were some exceptions in which one or more of the victims perished tragically. Such cases became very rare in later show runs and were usually featured in specific documentary segments.
Cases of death on the show include an episode where a bus full of kids was swept away in a flooded river. Ten died, but the others survived. Another episode was about a man in his early 30s who was stabbed and pronounced dead after several rescue attempts by the doctors.
William Was a Child Star
The show’s host, William Shatner, is considered a TV icon. He was born on March 22, 1931, in Montreal, Quebec, to parents who signed him up to acting classes by eight! As a kid, he starred on CBC Radio and proceeded to work as a CBC broadcaster.
Shatner attended Montreal’s McGill University. When asked about his time as a student, he told reporters of The Guardian: “I didn’t do anything spectacular or special (in college), and I don’t know how all of this career and success came about.”
Kirk and Scotty Go Way Back
Shatner graduated from school in 1952 and, two years later, made his TV debut. He played Ranger Bob on Howdy Doody in 1954. Some say this was his first appearance on the television, yet other sources credit his first TV gig to a CBC sci-fi show called Space Command.
It was an adventure series that starred James Doohan — who would later play chief engineer Scotty on Star Trek. In addition to Space Command, Shatner and Doohan also starred together in a 1960 play called “The Well.”
William Starred With Young Steve McQueen
After William’s Broadway debut in 1956, he began starring on the anthology shows considered a highlight of TV’s Golden Age. One episode of Studio One called “The Defender” had Bill play an attorney standing up for an angry young fellow.
This young guy was none other than 26-year-old Steve McQueen! Nearly five decades later, an episode of the show Boston Legal repurposed footage from that episode and depicted William’s character, Denny Crane, as a young guy.
He Appeared in Two Twilight Zone Episodes
At the start of the ‘60s, Shatner was hired to star in The Twilight Zone episode “Nick of Time.” The episode was about an evil fortune-telling machine. But the actor’s unforgettable mark on the Zone came three years later when he played in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
William played an airplane passenger who spots a devilish monster on the wing. “This is going to be awful,” William recalled thinking. Incredibly, it turned out to be one of the show’s most beloved episodes!
On TV Before Star Trek
In 1965, William acted as an assistant D.A. in For the People, a drama series dealing with the law created and directed by Stuart Rosenberg, the same director who worked on Cool Hand Luke. Jessica Walters starred as his wife.
His boss in the series was Howard Da Silva. Unfortunately for William, but happily for Star Trek fans, For the People was taken off the air after only 13 episodes, opening up the actor’s schedule for a specific five-year mission.
Kirk and Spock Were BFFS in Real Life
In William’s book Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, he described Nimoy as his “closest friend in the world.” But their relationship wasn’t always like that. The two stars were wary of each other during the show’s early days.
William revealed that their true friendship only began after the show wrapped up. He wrote: “[Fan] conventions brought members of the cast together regularly and marked the real beginning of my friendship with Leonard.”
Barbary Coast Was His Comeback
In late 1975, William returned to primetime on the show Barbary Coast, his first lead role in a series since his Star Trek days. He starred as Jeff Cable, a secret agent in 1880s San Francisco who fought crime with Doug McClure, a casino owner, and partner.
The two had worked together earlier, on a show called Checkmate where they appeared on one episode and in two episodes of a show called The Virginian. Unfortunately, the show only aired for one season, but it remains a fan favorite to this day.
He Directed T.J. Hooker
William finally made a successful comeback to TV in 1982 with T.J. Hooker, produced by Aaron Spelling. William also directed ten episodes of the fantastic cop drama starring Heather Locklear, James Darren, and Adrian Zmed.
But William’s most well-known directorial assignment happened in 1989 when he was allowed to work on the fifth feature film with the original Star Trek cast. Shatner directed (and wrote the script for) Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.