Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Tim Minear, Fox’s 9-1-1 is a soapy, adrenaline-soaked take on the lives of first responders in Los Angeles. The series has just been renewed for a second season after airing only two episodes, but already we’ve seen: a baby flushed down a pipe, a snake strangling its owner, people falling off a roller coaster, a couple of jumpers, two burglary scenarios, and more. No matter how much personal drama the characters experience, the emergencies are where this series seems to truly shine. But what’s the 411 on those 911 calls? Is there any truth to these outrageous scenarios?
Simply put: Yes. Or at least, mostly. The series itself came from a real-life emergency that Ryan Murphy experienced, which he explained during the show’s Television Critics Association panel earlier this month:
“My son Ford was 11 months old and in the middle of the night stopped breathing. We called 9-1-1, and obviously we were in a panic and doing CPR, and they showed up, and at two in the morning there were four responders. They were incredibly calm and nurturing, and they brought him back to life.”
Though Ford recovered, the people who saved him left an impression on Murphy. And I can see why. First responders are trained to not only deal with emergencies, but to deal with the people experiencing those emergencies — and those people are often in the midst of the worst moment of their lives. If we’re lucky, we may never need to dial 9-1-1. But anything can happen, as Murphy experienced first-hand. It makes sense that he’d be fascinated by the very people who saved his child’s life.
“I’m interested in presenting stories that are uplifting and aspirational and that give you hope, given [sic] viewers hope that here [sic] is good out there. There is a feeling that I was left with [when the responders saved my son], and that feeling is what we’re trying to put in the show.”
In creating 9-1-1, the team spoke with responders and also looked for real-life emergencies for inspiration. But before you start imagining some “ripped from the headlines” approach, try “ripped from YouTube” instead. It all started with the baby-in-a-pipe, which is a real thing that happened in China in 2013 — right down to the responders having to saw out a section of pipe. And in real life, just like in the show, the baby survived.
It turns out that the creators saw that video and became a little obsessed with it. As Tim Minear explained to Bustle:
“The baby in a pipe was the genesis for how we’re approaching coming up with these cases. We’re trying to create viral videos. What’s the great, amazing, WTF moment you might see on YouTube, in a compilation of ultimate fails or scariest tragedies or things gone wrong? It’s harder to find a story in those than you might think.
…That is the inspiration, to try and lean into the social media culture of that instant, ‘media is everywhere’ and cameras are everywhere. People are used to seeing true life events that would make their heads spin.”
So the team looks for those crazy stories — not to make the series unbelievable, but to make it relatable and realistic. Then they put their own spin on them, perhaps even giving them a more positive outcome. Bustle pointed out that, in addition to the baby-pipe emergency, the boa constrictor emergency was also based on a real story. So I started looking at some of the other fictional emergencies from 9-1-1 to see if I could find any real-world inspirations:
- The window-washer whose harness snapped? That happened in New York City this year.
- The rollercoaster disaster? Well, back in June, a 14-year-old girl was famously caught by bystanders after she fell from a gondola ride at Six Flags Great Escape in Queensbury, NY. But there are many tales of amusement park rides gone wrong.
- The burglar who was cornered by the household dogs? Last August there was a story about a family in Virginia who came home to find blood splattered on the walls and floors, and realized their pet German Shepherd had fought off a home intruder while they were out.
- As for the little girl who was hiding in her home when burglars broke in? That happened to two teens in Florida this summer. Luckily they were able to call for help as well.
I can’t say for sure that these particular stories are the ones that influenced the 9-1-1 team, but I think this goes to show that the most unrealistic part of the series isn’t the batshit crazy 9-1-1 calls — it’s having ALL of these crises happen to the same handful of responders, back-to-back over a short period of time. And you know what? I’m ok with that. Any fictional world where Peter Krause might save me from a burning building while Angela Basset handcuffs some asshole and Connie Britton talks to me soothingly is a fictional world I can get behind.