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Series / Rescue 911

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"This is 911, do you have an emergency?"

"This program contains true stories of rescues. All of the 911 calls you will hear are real. Whenever possible, the actual people involved have helped us reconstruct the events as they happened."

Rescue 911 was a TV show that re-enacted true stories of people involved in emergency medical situations—it showed how the situation occurred, what happened, how other people helped, how emergency services got involved, and the aftermath of what happened. It was hosted by William Shatner.

The show aired on CBS from 1989 to 1996, and took its material from late 1980s and early 1990s cases. Each episode consisted of a few segments, each with its own reenactment of a true story interspersed with talking head interviews from the real life participants. Usually, segments begin with people going about their daily lives leading to some person(s) becoming involved in a situation that causes an emergency, followed by citizens' responses to it, leading to an emergency services (police/fire/medical) response, followed by (maybe) a few scenes from the hospital, and concluding with a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue.

Most of these stories involved some sort of serious physical injury or other life-threatening situation, although the vast majority of stories (though not all!) show that these emergencies have survivors. And there are a few stories that don't involve any injuries at all but have various unusual situations.

When originally aired on CBS, episodes were typically an hour long, although segments could (and would) be trimmed to create half-hour or even quarter-hour episodes, depending on how much time the network needed to fill. A half-hour version later aired in syndication. Justice Network started airing the show in late 2017, and Pluto TV added a dedicated channel for it in 2020.

The show was influential in its time, with viewers learning from the show and applying that knowledge to their own emergency situations. This led to two specials called "100 Lives Saved" and "200 Lives Saved," which featured people who spoke of how the things they learned from the show helped them save other people's lives.

In 2018, a reboot (also to be hosted by Shatner) was said to be in the works.

Not to be confused with 9-1-1, a police and rescue procedural drama.

This show contains examples of:

  • Acting Unnatural: Discussed by a police officer in "911 He's Not an Officer." He says that when he pulls his vehicle up behind or next to a walking suspect and gently guns the engine, then they'll move to the side to get out of the way if they're innocent. If they're not innocent, then they'll keep on walking in an unnatural gait to try and get away without running (doing what the officer calls a "penguin walk").
  • Actually Pretty Funny:
    • In one episode, a dog gets his head stuck in a dryer vent. The kids who are taking care of the dog are actually quite amused but call 911 regardless.
    • Same thing with the tangled dog who accidentally dialed 911 in "911-Dialing Dog." The responding officers rescue the dog and have a good laugh, though most of their laughter comes from relief that the situation is far more benign then they originally thought.
    • The couple in "Chimney Trapped Crook" are initially pretty frightened by the burglar stuck in their chimney, but once they calm down and see the police officers and firemen laughing about it, they very quickly find the humor in the situation.
  • All Part of the Show: A few times, people assume that the victims are joking.
    • This is discussed in "Send in the Clowns," where a clown's reaction to cardiac arrest is almost mistaken for a comedy act.
    • This is also discussed in "Cannonball Kid," as the victim had a reputation for goofing around, and most of the other teens at the pool party just initially assumed that he was continuing to do so.
    • Also in "6th Grade CPR" where a few of the students start laughing and claiming their teacher is playing a joke.
  • Babies Ever After: Sometimes during the epilogues, the victims are seen playing with children they've had post-accident, as a nice way of showing how they have moved on with their lives.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sometimes they walk away with damage or even worse but a greater tragedy was averted.
    • In "Runaway Boxcars," the officer managed to prevent a much bigger accident, but one of the two people in the car died.
    • The episode with the crocodile in Africa. The victim walks away with permanent arm damage...and the dad lost his arm.
    • "Sealant Overdose": The good news? They saved the patient. The bad news? He has brain damage.
    • "Scuba Cave": Two out of the three divers make it out. One of them even manages to climb out of the water himself.
    • "Butane Huffing": Three teens stop huffing butane, but it took the death of a fourth to teach them the lesson.
    • "Loggers' Baby": Baby Benjamin's life is saved, and he gets adopted. But Shatner notes that the authorities never identify the mother who left him for dead, and Benjamin might grow up never knowing about the loggers who saved his life.
    • "Bar Blast": The crooks are nabbed and later convicted, but the man who was shot dies, and the town of Cody, Wyoming loses its sense of security.
  • Body Horror:
    • "Baby Bathtub Burn". You'll never look at hot water the same again.
      • Any of the burns. There's one where hot grease is spilled on a baby and the grandmother gets burns on her hands, too.
      • Another prominent one is when a car and its passengers gets buried in a truckload of hot asphalt.
    • "Frozen Boy" from episode 704 mentions that the kid's fingers swelled up when medical personnel put them in fluid to warm them up. Then to drive the point home, they show pictures of the swollen fingers, and it's not pretty.
  • Canada, Eh?: While the majority of episodes took place in the United States, a few took place in Canada, and got to show off just how badass Canadians can be.
    • "911 Ottawa Bank Bust" is a great example. The bank robber is coolly stared down by a bank patron who decides to follow him by truck (getting shot at for his trouble), and one of the hostages later in the episode kicks the gun out of the robber's hands and gets himself and the other hostage free.
    • "Teen Hides from Intruders" takes place in Surrey, British Columbia, and the responding officers are RCMP.
  • Cat Scare: At the beginning of "911 Silent Intruder", the young woman is momentarily startled by her pet cat's mewing.
  • Coincidental Broadcast: "St. Louis Gas Leak" involves a man taking his wife to the hospital because she thinks she's getting ill. At the hospital, they view a rerun of Rescue 911 in the waiting room with the episode about a couple experiencing similar flu-like symptoms that were from carbon monoxide poisoning. As soon as the father sees that, he realizes that his four children are still in the house that is slowly filling with carbon monoxide.
  • Content Warning: Occasionally, when a segment is especially intense, Shatner will lead off by saying that the story "may be too intense for some viewers."
  • Crime Reconstruction: And accident reconstruction, too.
  • Dance Party Ending: The "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue for "Pinellas EMS" is mostly comprised of a dance party where the (recovering) victim and his friends dance to country music.
  • Domestic Abuse: Several of the stories are about assaults and other incidents involving an estranged spouse assaulting their husband or wife. One frightening example was "Christina's Call," where a man broke into his soon-to-be ex-wife's house, and what turned out to be a brutal stabbing could be heard in the background. (The assailant was later arrested and served time in prison.)
  • Downer Ending: This is mostly averted because the victims acted the right way and emergency services came in time, but unfortunately there were a few episodes where people actually died.
    • This was notable in "Butane Huffing," where a teenager collapses and dies after huffing butane to get high, which was ostensibly produced to make the point that Inhalant Abuse Is Bad.
  • Driven to Suicide: "Suicide Save," "911 Suicide Save," and "Suicidal Caller".
  • Drugs Are Bad: "Sealant Overdose" and "Butane Huffing" specifically mention inhalants. The show also had a couple of drunk-driving cases, and pointed out that it's the drunk-driving that's bad.
    • There was also one about binge-drinking, but it was pointed out that the binge drinking was bad.
  • Eagleland Osmosis: When the show was exported outside of North America, Australian viewers were reminded to call 000, and UK viewers were likewise reminded to call 999.
    • In New Zealand, despite showing a disclaimer that 111 is their emergency call number, the show still had to be re-titled Rescue 111 in New Zealand shortly after, then simply Rescue in its final years.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first season was a bit rocky compared to what the show later became. Reenactments were much more heavily dramatized, some segments were a bit more violent and less family-friendly, there were more documentary-style segments, and Shatner was a bit more animated in his host segments.
    • "Supermarket Hostage," which was part of the first regular episode, concludes with a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue where the segment's reenactors break character and present the woman who called 911 with flowers and letters of gratitude.
  • Emergency Services: The program showcases the work of dispatchers, firefighters, paramedics, and police officers.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Telemarketers, one of the scourges of the time the show was filmed, did in fact have a policy about suicidal or endangered people on the phone: Get their location, contact local emergency services, keep them on the line, and only hang up when authorities appear.
  • Eye Scream: "Chemistry Hero." A science experiment blew up in a science teacher's face, but thanks to the quick thinking of a colleague who got him to the emergency eye washer immediately and irrigated his eyes until the paramedics arrived, his sight was saved.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: It's not uncommon for strangers to become friends over the rescues, or for people who are already friends to become closer.
    • Inverted in "Balcony Fall," where it's mentioned that best friends Andrea (the victim) and Rachel (the friend) had grown apart in the six months after the accident, because Rachel didn't feel comfortable around Andrea anymore due to Survivor Guilt.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: A subtle example in "Sixth Grade CPR." The math teacher makes a big mistake during a lesson on roundingnote , before collapsing a couple of seconds later.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: The victim of "Happy Ending Hang Glider" ended up marrying the nurse who took care of him.
  • For Want of a Nail: Often, people interviewed will speculate what might have happened had something not gone correctly.
    • For instance, in many stories about a house fire, interviewees say that opening a door that felt warm might have led to a backdraft and near-instant death. The girl interviewed in "Sisterly Save" said she had learned that safety tip in school.
    • Discussed by the lady rescued in "Train Track Hero." She compares the titular hero to Jimmy Stewart's character in It's a Wonderful Life, saying that if Luis hadn't been there to save her from the train collision, then she wouldn't be around for things like the birth of her first grandchild or her daughter's wedding.
    • Also discussed by the victim in "Heat Stroke Hiker," who says that if the other people hadn't been present to help her, then she wouldn't have lived to get married and have a baby.
  • Freudian Excuse: The girl in "Glass Bottle" never drinks from a bottle because of her traumatic experience with the bottle.
    • It's been mentioned that the kid whose tongue got frozen to the freezer stays the hell away from the icebox in real life because of what happened.
    • After one of her children choked on a lollipop, a mother said she no longer allowed them in her house.
  • Happy Ending: Aside from a few exceptions, Rescue 911 featured these. Justified in that the point of the show was to show how the response causes a happy ending.
  • Hell Is That Noise:
    • The tone in "Mystery Dispatch."
    • The buzzing made by the swarming bees in "Swarm Save" and "911 Honeybee Horror."
    • In many other stories, crackling or popping noises (due to electrical shorts) that alert homeowners to fire.
  • House Fire: The subject of many stories, the dilemmas the subjects face and how they ultimately escaped with little more than minor injuries and a scarred, frightening experience ... and how the families rebuilt afterwards.
  • Humiliation Conga: A Real Life example happened to the titular crook from "Chimney Trapped Crook." First, he got stuck in the fireplace after trying to break in through the chimney right around Christmastime. The homeowners had a good laugh, then called the police, who showed up and had a good laugh. Then a fire/rescue crew showed up, and they all had a good laugh. Then the homeowners started taking some pictures to send to friends and family, further adding to the humiliation. Then, after spending half the night upside down, he is freed from the chimney—only to get tackled by some cops and firemen, arrested, and (later) sentenced. THEN some producers made an episode of Rescue 911 about it...
  • Hysterical Woman: Justified to some extent due to the extreme emergencies in some cases.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: What many of the rescuers say afterward.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: The show didn't follow a consistent formula when naming segments, usually opting to give a two or three word description of the segment's content, and occasionally left segments untitled. When they did use idiosyncratic names, however, they typically went for a variation of "911 [subject]" (such as "911 Video Stabbing"), "[subject] Save" ("EMT Husband Save"), an Alliterative Title ("Regatta Rescue"), or a combination of any of the three ("911 Stalker Save").
  • I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Several involving children or teenagers, though there are no fatal examples.
  • Impersonating an Officer: In "911 He's Not an Officer," a young man in a Mustang honks at a woman driving her car and flashes a badge in an attempt to get her to pull over. Suspicious of his behavior, she calls 911 on her car phone and tails him when he tries to flee. And yes, it turns out he was not a police officer, and was using a stolen badge.
  • Instant Emergency Response: Averted considering that the stories usually have emergency services seeming to take forever to get to the emergencies. For instance, there is a story of wounded man in an isolated farm house and it was noted that it would take 20 minutes for the ambulance to get there at maximum speed with lights and siren.
    • In another episode, the father of a baby bitten by fire ants meets the ambulance at the highway due to the remote location of their home.
  • It's All About Me: According to an eyewitness, the reckless driver who caused the accident in "Mud Trap Rescue" was more concerned with his car being messed up than the well-being of the girls he'd just run off the highway, and subsequently drove away rather than help.note 
  • Just in Time: Many of the rescues happen moments before the potential danger takes full effect ... for instance, escaping a burning house moments before the house is fully ventilated and explodes into a fireball.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The show never said whether the men who were scaring the babysitter in "911 Baby Sitter Prowler" were tracked down or arrested.
    • A somewhat example with "Arlington 911": the show downright says that the intruder's accomplice was never caught.
    • "911 Lansing Stabbing" episode doesn't say if the intruder was found or arrested, or if they're still at large.
    • The driver of the van that hit the bike-riding girl in "No Helmet Horror" is only mentioned as having sat "stunned" in her vehicle, and nothing else. Not even if she received any criminal charges or not.
  • Kid Hero: Quite a few. They even produced a special about it.
  • Licensed Pinball Table: Made by Gottlieb in 1994, and fairly well-regarded to boot. Click here for details.
  • Manipulative Editing: In one episode, a kid fell in a frozen river and was stuck underwater for about 45 minutes. One YouTube commenter pointed out that the kid actually had shoplifted and was running away, and the media painted it as a rescue. In real life, he faced no charges for what he did because of what happened.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • The driver of the water delivery truck that ran over the boy in "Rollerblade Rescue" immediately rushes to the boy's aid and calls for help.
    • The boy with the BB gun in "BB Gun Blast" had this reaction upon learning that a stray pellet from his gun had hit a boy. He later apologized to his family after he recovered.
    • The drunk driver in "Repentant Drunk Driver" felt this way after learning of what happened to the victims of the accident he caused, and for a time spoke to high school students educating them on the dangers of driving while intoxicated.
  • No One Could Survive That!:
    • A recurring theme is people who pull through despite slim prognoses that they'll survive their horrific injuries. Justified as the point of the series is to show that these people do survive because they get help in time.
    • There was a case of woman driving down the freeway when he accelerator pedal got stuck, and she was also unable to shift into Park due to a transmission issue. She drove for several miles at a high speed before crashing; as she was being loaded into the ambulance, she overheard a bystander saying, "She must be dead; there's no way she could have survived."(She was actually released from the hospital that same day.)
  • Oh, Crap!: A common reaction by 911 operators, paramedics, and bystanders when they discover how severely someone is injured, or if the victim is a close friend/family member of the dispatchers or medics, or by the victims themselves when they realize something bad is about to happen.
  • One-Steve Limit: The two loggers in "Loggers' Baby" are both named Ken. Shatner even refers to them as "the Kens" in the narration.
  • Outside Ride: A variation occurs in "Bumper Baby," which has a two-year-old girl clinging for dear life onto the back of her father's box truck as it flies down the highway with her dad none the wiser at the wheel.
  • Pædo Hunt: Several stories focused on rescuing children from the clutches of kidnappers, most of whom had intent to do them harm. One particular frightening story focused on a stranger luring away one of two sisters who were playing in a yard (using the old "I've lost money, can you help me find it" trick).
  • The Public Domain Channel: The kids in the segments all seem to love old cartoons.
  • Rescue: The central premise of the show.
  • This Is Reality: Because the show is based on real life stories, a lot of tropes normally associated with drama & fictional medicine are averted. Here are a few.
    • Clean Pretty Reliable: Almost never revived the victim, and they needed to be taken to the hospital anyway.
    • Magical Defibrillator: Never worked the first time, and even when it restarted the heartbeat, the patient still often had other problems that needed to be dealt with.
    • Only a Flesh Wound: The mother of a boy who accidentally shot his sister with a rifle, while understandably scared for her daughter, initially assumed that "it was gonna be, you know, kinda like in the movies, you know; you've been shot, you go in, they take the bullet out, you're fine." As it turned out the bullet had entered her abdomen and exited her chest, meaning that the little girl's liver and spleen were severely damaged and she was in very serious danger of bleeding to death within hours.
    • Worst Aid: If a person didn't know what to do, they almost never made the situation worse by trying to "help," but instead let the trained professionals handle it.
  • Relationship-Salvaging Disaster: The aptly-named episode "Remarriage Rescue". When a boy winds up in a bad bike accident, his divorced parents reunite at his bedside. After all the time spent as their son recovers, the parents remarry at the end.
  • Rescue Romance: Has happened on a couple of episodes, like "New Zealand Heart Attack".
  • Rousseau Was Right: Within the show itself, it's surprising how many times a random person saves a complete stranger.
    • In "Wrong Number Rescue," a couple of kids call a wrong number by mistake. On the other line is an old man who is wheezing and saying he can't catch his breath, so they call an ambulance after finding out where he lives.
    • In "Train Track Hero," the hero doesn't hesitate to put himself in danger to save a complete stranger from an oncoming train.
  • Scary Stinging Swarm:
    • "Swarm Save": A flatbed truck transporting beehives tips over in the middle of the night, and the swarms of agitated bees attack the driver and the rescue personnel. It's mentioned that the driver retires from beekeeping after the incident.
    • "911 Honeybee Horror": While mowing some property, a man agitates a hive of feral honeybees. Again, the bees swarm the victim and the rescue personnel, and they have to call in some beekeepers to help evacuate the victim.
  • Sound-Effect Bleep: Done to preserve anonymity. Whenever a victim's address is mentioned during the replay of a 911 recording, the show bleeps it with bursts of static.
  • Strictly Formula: Aside from the occasional change in the routine, such as with the documentary segments or segments without a clear victim, each segment followed the same formula:
    • Shatner would open the segment in a 911 call center or in front of emergency vehicles, delivering an Opening Narration to introduce the segment.
    • Each segment consists of reenactment footage interspersed with Shatner's narration and talking head interviews from the participants in the incident. Typically, the victim or victims themselves do not have a talking head interview at first.
    • As the segment begins, light music plays as the reenactment footage shows the soon-to-be victim(s) or helpers going about their business.
    • The incident occurs. Frequently, someone immediately jumps in to render aid.
    • Someone calls 911 for help, and the recording of the call is heard.
    • Rescue services are rendered.
    • If someone is injured, then their hospital stay and recovery are documented.
    • Once we see that the victim is all right, we get a talking head interview with that person. Normally this person talks about how to avoid the accident, or how to properly cope with the emergency situation.
    • Finally, soft, happy music plays as we see a "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, typically culminating in a Freeze-Frame Ending showing everyone happy.
  • Sudden Downer Ending: Somewhat in the episode “Bingo”. While the episode is no laughing matter, (It’s about a mother who got shot by her husband and was left to die, and wasn’t found for two days, and she becomes quadriplegic as a result of her wounds), the episode still ends on a happy note, showing the victim playing with her young son and titular dog that saved her life. That is, until reruns aired a few months later, with this text added at the end: On March 24, 1991, Rhonda died from complications resulting from her injuries.
  • Supporting Protagonist: A variation if you assume that the victims are the "protagonists" of each segment. The show focuses primarily on the people who work to help the victim; we usually don't get a talking head interview with the victim until the end, after we see that everything is okay.
  • Survivor Guilt: Many people who come out of a situation relatively unscathed mention in their talking head interviews that they wish that the incident had harmed them rather than the actual victim.
  • Survivorship Bias: While occasionally averted, focused on emergencies that ended up with the person in danger surviving and continuing to live a normal life (although not always in one piece), as well as victims of massive disasters that also survived the destruction.
  • Taught by Television: A great many viewers learned from the show and were able to act properly in their own emergencies. This led to the "100 Lives Saved" and "200 Lives Saved" specials, which profiled some of these people.
  • Tickertape Parade: The dog in "Lassie Saves Baby" was the grand marshal of one after being awarded for alerting his owners to their choking baby.
  • Time Bomb: A real life example from "University Pipe Bomb," with only 40 seconds left on the clock by the time the detective gets to the bomb.
  • Truth in Television: Some people on YouTube who were in the show have actually left comments about it.
    • Some of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning actually mirror the flu—a common pattern was that the family poisoned by CO thought that they were coming down with something.
  • Twist Ending: "911 Silent Intruder" starts out looking like a regular Rescue 911 burglary episode, complete with a dramatic reenactment and serious talking head interviews. The twist comes when the police officer discovers that the "intruder" is actually an armless mannequin, and no one was in any danger whatsoever.
  • Wham Shot: "Unconscious Driver" from episode 314 doesn't show the passengers of the out-of-control car until about a third of the way into the segment. The Wham occurs when when the camera pans from the unconscious driver to her oblivious toddler riding in the passenger seat.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Nearly always done at the end of a segment. Usually, Rescue 911 filmed the segment's protagonists walking along a beach or walkway, visiting a fun center or public park, or other somesuch. The show also liked to film the protagonists meeting back up with the dispatchers and/or other personnel that rendered assistance.
    • If their segment is posted on YouTube, then sometimes the people involved (or those who know them) will post a comment, saying what they're up to today.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit:
    • In "Hijacked Ambulance," a crook pulled over and arrested for drug possession fakes a heart attack, then hijacks the ambulance sent to help him.
    • The same thing happens in "Prison EMT's," when two convicted murderers use an ambulance to escape the Tennessee State Prison after one fakes chest pains.