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The Real-Life History of the ‘Designated Survivor’

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Updated: | Originally published: ;

In ABC’s new show Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland plays a U.S. Cabinet member who unexpectedly becomes president after an attack on the Capitol during the State of the Union wipes out everyone ahead of him in the presidential line of succession.

Sutherland’s character, Tom Kirkman, is chosen as the so-called “designated survivor,” a low-level government official who sits in a secure, undisclosed location, ready to take charge in case an attack kills those in attendance at the State of the Union address, a presidential inauguration or another event that brings the country’s leaders together.

But Sutherland’s role—the designated survivor—is a real one within the U.S. government. The tradition of selecting a designated survivor originated during the Cold War over fears of nuclear attacks killing the country’s leaders. Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the role became more serious amid growing security concerns.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch took on the role of designated survivor in January while the country’s top leaders gathered to watch President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union Address. A seven-term senator who ran for president in 2000, Hatch became the highest-ranking designated survivor in more than a decade. In 2015, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sat out of the State of the Union as the designated survivor.

Unlike their fictional counterpart in Designated Survivor, the real-life officials set to take over in case of an emergency have never actually had to carry out the task. ABC’s show, which premieres Sept. 21 at 10 p.m. ET, imagines what unfolds when the unthinkable happens, and examines how Kirkman grapples with suddenly becoming the president.

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Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com