A ride-along sounds suspiciously like a drive-by, but it’s the only way that “probies”—aspiring firefighters who endure an 11-month probationary period prior to becoming volunteer firefighters—can learn the trade. By riding along on fire trucks and shadowing firefighters on their emergency calls, the probies are able to familiarize themselves with firsthand encounters while the experienced veterans monitor the action.
Like most people in southern California, Melanson spends much of his day in an automobile, and an extended ride-along is the only way to interview him. From Fire Station 3, he will drive his government-issue Dodge Charger with tinted windows to his administrative office at another fire station—a cluttered, wood-paneled room that looks like the principal’s office in an antiquated elementary school, a place where Melanson seems particularly out of place. Then he’s off to another town to attend a meeting with fire officials, then back to the fire station. In transit, his two BlackBerry smartphones are in a state of constant agitation, and he excuses himself to field phone calls, e-mails, and texts from both the department and his wife. Believe him when he says he loves his job; his persistent animation is incredible. He does not stop for coffee or food the entire day, yet his energy never flags.
The city of Compton is an area of 10 and a half square miles that is home to about 100,000 people and approximately 75 known gangs. It is the acknowledged base of the Crips and the Bloods, two of the most notorious street gangs in the world, whose territories more or less evenly divide the city. According to data tabulated from FBI figures, it was the 12th most dangerous American city in 2009.
“Compton has a rich gang history. The sad part is, it defines Compton,” says Melanson. As we drive past one-story houses and tidy yards that look as if they might belong to any south L.A. subdivision, he’s eager to point out how the real Compton varies from the version put forth by gangsta rappers N.W.A. in their genre-defining classic Straight Outta Compton. “The Crips didn’t start here. The Crips started in South Central L.A. as a group of individuals who were associated with the color blue because of the school color of the high school they went to. The Bloods started here in Compton because there was a group of individuals that was tired of getting beat up by this other group of individuals, the Crips, so they started their own gang. It became the Bloods, and the color of their high school was red. That’s where it all began, the red and the blue. It’s that simple.”