RESCUE 911: 10 Facts About the Groundbreaking Reality Series On Its 30th Anniversary

Rescue 911

In recent years, reality-based programming has become one of television’s most popular and influential genres. But while the term “reality show” may be relatively new, unscripted programming isn’t. TV’s first decades were dominated by amateur talent competitions, high-concept game shows, and documentary programs featuring non-actors. PBS even dipped its toe into the proto-reality genre in the 1970s with An American Family, a mash-up of cinema verité and soap opera.

But everything changed with Rescue 911. Debuting in 1989, this hugely popular series was one of the first to bring true-life stories to primetime with high-quality production values and top-notch storytelling techniques. The result was a gripping “docudrama” that scored high ratings for seven seasons — all with real people, true stories, and nail-biting action!

You can see what we mean every weekday as Rescue 911 joins the getTV schedule this month! TV icon William Shatner hosts stories of First Responders and the lives they save — Monday through Friday from 4-6p ET.

Here are some fun facts about this groundbreaking series:

1. Rescue 911 helped speed the growth of 9-1-1.

When Rescue 911 debuted in 1989, the ability to reach a local emergency dispatch call center by dialing 9-1-1 was only available in fifty percent of the United States. Today, 99 percent of country has access to this lifesaving service. Rescue 911 is often credited with building awareness of 9-1-1, offering weekly evidence of its value by focusing on success stories, and speeding national implementation.

2. It wasn’t planned as a weekly series.

Rescue 911 was initially sold to CBS as two primetime specials. The first hour-long program premiered to high ratings on April 18, 1989. After the second special aired on May 9, the network quickly ordered a weekly series. It debuted on September 5, 1989, airing Tuesday nights at 8p ET for most of its run — and ranking in the Top 30 for four of its seven seasons.

3. Shatner was still captain of the Enterprise while hosting Rescue 911.

While Star Trek fans may regard Rescue 911 as part of Shatner’s post-Trek output, he was actually still playing Capt. James T. Kirk for much of the show’s run. The first 911 special aired one month before the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier — also directed by Shatner — landed in theaters. And he would play Kirk twice more: in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Star Trek: Generations (1994), both filmed while Rescue 911 was in production.

William Shatner directing Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

4. Another Star Trek icon was considered as host.

CBS Entertainment president Kim LeMasters — who reportedly came up with the Rescue 911 concept after hearing a 9-1-1 call on Charles Osgood’s radio program — originally suggested Leonard Nimoy as host. Star Trek’s Mr. Spock was a logical choice, considering he had emceed the docudrama series In Search Of for six seasons. Shatner was ultimately hired because he had just completed six seasons as a First Responder on T.J. Hooker.

Leonard Nimoy hosting In Search Of (1976-82)

5. Rescue 911 was produced by an Oscar winner.

If you were a teenager (or older) in the late 1970s, you probably remember Scared Straight (1978), wherein troubled young people learned scary life lessons from scary criminals in a scary prison. It was the rare documentary to win both an Oscar and an Emmy, and its writer/director Arnold Shapiro brought that same brand of emotionally compelling storytelling to Rescue 911. Shapiro produced the entire run of 911 and went on to continued success with reality shows like Big Brother. He retired in 2015 after a 50-year career — with 16 Emmys and a Peabody Award.

6. Every story was real — and most featured actual participants.

Every Rescue 911 segment was based on a true emergency situation and most featured recordings of the actual 911 calls. While many stories were depicted using dramatic recreations, most featured the actual participants — both the rescued and the rescuers. Even Shatner’s wraparounds were shot in real locations: 9-1-1 call centers in Huntington Beach, Glendale and Manhattan Beach, California. “What set this show apart from the reality shows currently on the air was that our stories were real,” Shatner wrote in his 2008 autobiography Up Till Now. “We didn’t create reality.”

REecue 911

Rescue 911

7. Rescue 911 saved lives.

Although Rescue 911 was not designed to be educational, viewers saved lives simply by using techniques they saw on the show — and they wrote in to report these happy events. “We know we saved 350 lives,” Shatner wrote in Up Till Now. “But the true figure may well be thousands.”

8. The show inspired a new generation of EMTs.

Kyle Bennett, whose near-fatal snake bite as a Louisiana toddler was depicted on the series in 1991, grew up to be an Emergency Medical Technician. And many kids who watched each week were inspired to pursue careers as EMTs. “I’d like to thank William Shatner,” Emergency Medical Technician Allison Salamoni said as she accepted the EMT of the Year award in 2016. “As a young child I was drawn to emergency medicine by Rescue 911.”

9. There were dozens of international versions.

At the height of its popularity, the Rescue 911 concept was adapted into more than 45 international versions — each promoting that territory’s emergency number. The U.K. version featured different hosts and stories. New Zealand’s TV2 retitled the original series Rescue 111 to match their emergency number. Other versions included a mix of Shatner segments dubbed in the local language and newly produced local segments.  

10. Fans could bring the Rescue 911 action home!

Six tie-in books were published during the original run focusing on the show’s most memorable cases. AMT Models produced kits of a police car, ambulance and helicopter, each highlighting a rescue featured on the show. And the kid-friendly nature of the concept inspired a series of Matchbox cars and a “Chopper Rescue” slot-car racing set from Marchon Inc. But the best licensed product of all was a full-sized Rescue 911 pinball machine from Gottlieb Games. It included flashing red lights, EKG sound effects, and a magnetic helicopter that would pick up the pinball!

11. Bonus! A reboot is in the works.

In October of 2018, Variety reported that a reboot of the original series was in the works with Shatner returning as host. The new version would offer a “live look at first responders taking real emergency calls every week” and include a panel of “actual fire fighters, EMTs, and police personnel discussing the emergency calls in real time.” Even though he’s 88, Shatner’s continued prolific output indicates he’s more than up to the task!

Rescue 911 airs 4p–6p ET weekdays on getTV — 4 half-hour episodes back-to-back. For more, visit the getTV schedule.

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