On the outskirts of Los Angeles, the city of Compton has just been hit with a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. The situation is grim. Power is down throughout the city, as are landline telephones, cell phones, Internet connectivity, and the entire 911 emergency system. Almost every area highway is reporting damage ranging from moderate to severe, and rail lines have sustained severe damage. Multiple fires are burning throughout the city even as damage to water lines has left water pressure low or nonexistent. Hundreds of citizens need shelter, and getting assistance from surrounding communities is not an option.
Welcome to hell on earth.
Marcel Melanson is concentrating on a panel of radios, the communications interface for Compton Fire Station 3, as he works on a laptop. Lean and good-looking with close-cropped black hair and skin the color of sand, he is perhaps the antithesis of the stereotypical firefighter. He has no gut and no mustache (unless you count the one tattooed down his index finger). The tattoo of flames and wind bars that snakes up his arms and the Japanese kabuki masks that peek over the edges of his black shirt collar seem almost perverse against the backdrop of his crisp fireman’s uniform, as if a maelstrom of furies is bursting out from beneath his otherwise professional exterior. Leaning back, his fingers tack away at the keyboard as he works through a series of error messages. With his striking hazel-green eyes, he looks more like a futuristic fleet commander or the leader of an alien legion than the deputy chief of the Compton Fire Department.
A clipped burst of static comes through on the radio: at last, a clear connection. “Loud and clear, over,” says a terse voice. Melanson nods with satisfaction.
This dire screenplay is a drill for the Compton Fire Department, where 33-year-old Melanson is deputy chief—one of the youngest in the nation to hold that rank. In southern California, where earthquakes are common and the 6.7-magnitude Northridge quake of 1994 killed at least 57 people and caused about $20 billion in damage, the scenario is all too real. A multiagency report from 2008 found that southern California has a 97 percent chance of suffering a similar quake within the next 27 years.
“You know it’s going to happen one way or the other,” says Melanson. “It’s like anything else—if you have a craft, you want to practice your craft. If we never got to use our skills, it’d be great, but the fact of the matter is that we do, and we know it’s going to happen.”
Working in one of the five busiest fire departments in California, firefighters in Compton practice their craft more than most. The department—84 employees, four fire stations, nine frontline emergency vehicles—handles an average of 10,000 emergency calls per year. The department’s average response time? Four minutes and 30 seconds.
That made them the perfect choice for First In, a reality TV series on BET that follows Melanson and his fellow firefighters as they battle everyday calamity on the streets of Compton. Around Los Angeles, even the firefighters moonlight in the entertainment industry, but the difference between Melanson and other reality TV stars couldn’t be more stark. While Heidi and Spencer eat ice cream and shop for Uggs in The Hills, Melanson and his crew saw through security bars and kick open doors so they can run into burning buildings. They are the first on the scene in the most terrifying moments of Compton citizens’ lives and deaths.