Capturing Reality

To this day, “Emergency!” remains the only Fire/EMS show that I simply had to watch. Of course, I was 10-years-old when it first aired, back when my brother and I were fairly certain it was our destiny to save the world. I was going to be the medic, he figured he would be captured by the enemy, whoever that was, and become a real life Hogan’s Hero.

Life is funny sometimes. I actually became a medic and he served a year in Iraq at the height of the war and another year in Afghanistan. He was never captured, and I never did half the stuff Johnny and Roy did, but our lives imitated the art portrayed in our favorite shows to some degree.

The other day, while watching something unmemorable on TV, a promo for “Boston EMS” came on. I automatically switched the channel. I just can’t seem to tune in to what the producers of the show are trying to convey.

It’s not that I don’t love EMS, respect the people that provide EMS services and have compassion for the patients, because I do. I just can’t watch.

My history with first responder related entertainment is limited, and admittedly jaded. I could only make it through five minutes of “Third Watch” before losing interest; the opening scene portrayed a mass casualty on a bridge, I think, and the nonchalant demeanor of the responders was absurd. “Rescue Me” never caught my attention either, even though I think the world of Denis Leary. I just couldn’t transcend my reality into his. I liked “ER”, but identified with the characters more than the recreations of medical emergencies. “Chicago Fire” might be good, I just don’t know, I can’t even get through the promos.

The police shows truly worry me; I can’t get past the image of a creepy writer sitting in a dingy basement, with spiders and cadaver parts his only company as he churns out grotesque murders that the special victims init needs to solve.

Even reality TV is unrealistic

Maybe first responder programming is heading in the right direction, with reality taking place of scripted programming. But even reality on TV is unrealistic. Nobody is able to be themselves when the cameras are rolling. This generation is far better at it than prior ones due to the fact that their entire lives are subject to cameras, but there is still a component of acting that is displayed whenever the cameras roll.

In my experience, and keep in mind that my experience was limited to the city of Providence, R.I., EMS just isn’t dramatic enough to hold the interest of the modern television viewer. What happens during a typical EMS shift is pretty mundane stuff. Even the “dramatic” moments fall far short of the shock value that so many people have become accustomed to.

I have seen my share of tragedy. I’ve been present at some of the most horrific events imaginable. I’ve watched real people die, seen the aftermath of mass casualties and observed the people whose lives have been suddenly changed forever, and it just doesn’t cut it, drama wise. People don’t act the way they are portrayed on TV. They don’t barge into an ambulance screaming, crying, and needing to be restrained. EMT’s and paramedics don’t react to death the way they are portrayed to on TV. We actually have very little reaction, visibly anyway.

And it’s not that we are trying to act cool calm and collected either; it’s more of a shock thing. Shock doesn’t play well on screen. It’s still, personal and visually very undramatic.

Patients are not all that interesting, either. When people are truly sick or injured they don’t have time or energy to look dramatic, they are simply sick or injured. If they are pretending to be sick or injured their acting jobs are generally so bad that the EMT’s don’t care, so how can we expect a television audience to be engaged?

The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image. Considering a moving picture consists of thousands of images logic would conclude that a television show about EMS would satisfactorily portray the job that EMS does quite effectively.

Well, I’ve got a new saying; “Until the time comes that an image or series of images can capture the honesty, humanity, sorrow, triumph, exhilaration and tedium that accompanies every EMS shift, “watching it” will never compare to “living it.”

Maybe that’s a little long. Perhaps a simple “A million pictures can never capture what is EMS.”

  1. I’m not sure how a television show could make EMS interesting to a person who lives it, or to the general public for that matter. What happens inside the ambulances that respond to the nation’s emergencies has the potential to be portrayed in dramatic fashion, but it is what goes on inside of the people who work inside the ambulances where the true drama occurs. Catching the complexity of emotion, the sometimes staggering moments of joy, despair and helplessness and the internal struggle one minute and peace and acceptance the next on camera is, I believe, impossible.


  • Joe Napier says:


    You are spot on. I believe the success and realism during the time that “Emergency” aired has to be attributed to the “technical experts” that were on set to assist Johnny and Roy with how the Paramedic of the day treated and reacted to everyday incidents. Jim Page and the team of LA County Firefighter Paramedics demanded realism and they got it.

  • David says:


    I was one of many who within 48 hours after the show “Trauma” aired, wrote complaint letters to NBC. Quite a few of these letters came from EMS, nurses, etc. I have seen some of the newer shows such as “Night Shift” and “Code Black”, and while I found “Code Black” trying to keep the personal drama minimal, things like a doctor doing a C-Section in the back of an ambulance on the 405 are like, “uh, no way, that’s TV”. However, I did find the episode where Dr. Willis led a field amputation to free a guy from a crane at a construction site – those things happen sometimes.

    I was a little kid when EMERGENCY! came on TV, and I went to EMT school 30 years ago this summer (ran my last call circa 1997). I liked EMERGENCY!, and while Gage and Desoto oftentimes ventured out of the confines of Carson (yeah, the canyons are far away, Marineland and LAX are a drive, and another station handled calls to meet the Coast Guard), those stories were done to show the roles of what fire department paramedics can get into, and it held the interest of the audience.

    One thing I liked too…Gage was single, as were Chet and Marco, and the scripts NEVER had them doing unorthodox things with their girlfriends. Same with Adam-12. Both Reed and Desoto (as well as Capt. Stanley) spoke well of their wives, and Gage, Marco, Chet, and Malloy treated their girlfriends in a respectful manner. Sadly, many shows today ignore this.

    Actually, one thing I didn’t like about Chicago Fire was one of the paramedics was a lesbian, and after seeing Rescue Me only once years ago, I nearly got sick to my stomach. One show I refused to watch was “Sirens” on USA (it didn’t last long), but I did like the pilot for a spinoff of “Strong Medicine” that was titled “Strong Medicine – First Response”. The main thing I would have covered with “Strong Medicine – First Response” was set it outside of Philadelphia, since it was a 3rd service EMS. Several cities in PA and NJ that are fairly good size in population, the 9-1-1 provider is a 3rd service EMS.

    Good article Michael.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *