Few events in real life are as inherently dramatic as a great big fire requiring every firetruck in the city to help douse the flames. For this reason, firefighters should just be a natural on TV, battling the extreme heat and dangerous conflagration. Well, that’s easy enough in these days of computer generated fires that can be under the complete control of the director. But starting a big fire even on a movie lot can be dangerous. So you can clearly see the conflict that has existed in making firefighters–who do a job every bit as dangerous as cops yet never seem to be videotaped beating innocent people senseless–as prevalent on TV as law enforcement officers.
Files from the Los Angeles Fire Dept. provided fodder for this syndicated show from the late 50s that focused more on the rescue side of the job than the fire part. Typical plots included things like rescuing a kid lost in the sewers or a hiker who fell into a bear trap. More fire-related plots included the attack of a fire warden by a pyromaniac and assisting Native American firefighters against a forest blaze.
The 1972 book titled “Reporter from Engine Co. 82” must have wound up among the reading material of dozens, hundreds or possibly even thousands of people associated with making TV series because that decade saw an explosion in shows attempting to tell the stories of firefighters. While many shows tried to tell fictional stories of the true real-life heroes, but most failed to make it past their freshman season on the air. “Firehouse” was one of the shows that didn’t connect. “Firehouse” followed the exploits of Engine Company 23 as they faced the struggles of high-rise office fires in downtown Los Angeles or worked to save expensive racehorses from a stable going up in flames.
One of those 1970s TV shows that did manage to find success in telling the stories of firefighters was “Emergency!” Of course, it gave itself a little leeway by making the focus of its stories the two paramedics who not only helped fight fighters but could use their new medical training to help everybody from a guy trapped in his car surrounded by live power lines to saving an idiotic frat boy who nearly chokes to death as a result of giving into peer pressure. Of course, the prime setting of the show was still the firehouse so episodes also routinely included fires caused by things like dynamite exploding in the back of a delivery truck and boat fires.
At the tail end of the 1970s focus on firefighters came “Code Red.” One thing you learn about the decision-making process that goes into TV series about firefighters is the importance of budgetary considerations on choosing a setting. The overwhelming majority of TV series that tell the stories of America’s most authentic heroes are set in Los Angeles. For one thing, it’s really hard to make a realistic show about fighting fires inside a studio, so there is the need to do a lot of outdoor shooting and, at least in the first few decades of TV, that was done most cheaply by staying right there in L.A. And so “Code Red” is also a TV series about fighting fires in L.A. Specifically, in this case, about conflagrations that were the result of arson. Firefighters would be seen more sproradically through the 80s and 90s, but made an even more robust comeback in the wake of renewed realization of their value following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
King of the Hill
“King of the Hill” is most assuredly not about firefighters, but arguably the funniest episode produced in the entire run of the series is an integral addition to the legacy of memorable firefighters in TV history. That is because the entire crux of the plot weighs on the fact that nearly every kid at one time or another dreams of growing up to become a firefighter. Hank, Dale, Bill and Boomhauer get that chance when Arlen’s firefighters go on strike and they are provided the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become volunteer firefighters. At the heart of this hilarious half hour is a sequence in which all four of the guys are in the firehouse portrayed as they were when kids. A kind of animated morphing takes each character from childhood to adulthood to further cement the fact that firefighters hold a very special place in the collective consciousness of Americans.