Heart and soul of Compton

Being seen as a hero is something Marcel Melanson has become accustomed to after 13 years as a firefighter. But it’s the newfound attention that comes with starring in a reality show that is harder to accept.

“I got pulled over the other day by a cop to get an autograph,” laughed Melanson, who is deputy chief of the Compton Fire Department. “I didn’t do the show to be a celebrity.”

Melanson is one of the city’s firefighters that are followed in BET’s new reality series, “First In.” The show, which airs Wednesdays, follows the lives of Compton’s fire and emergency crews as they struggle to balance family life with careers that pivot on life and death.

The stark challenges are made clear in the show’s first few episodes, when crew members are dispatched to the scene of a deadly gang-related shooting and then race to save a woman trapped underneath a house after a twin-engine plane crashes into the structure nose first. (Miraculously, the woman survives).


At the center of much of the action is the towering and heavily tattooed Melanson, who directs his crew as its members tackle the accidents and violence that surface in the city of 100,000. The city, known as a hotbed for gang activity, responds to a high number of emergency calls.

“A typical [station] goes on five to seven calls per day,” Melanson said. “You begin to get weary.”

The show deals not only with professional dangers, but also with crews members’ home lives.

Melanson, who’s been married for five years, has two sons: Cody, 5 and Gunnar, 2. While at work, Melanson contacts his wife and kids as much as he can, but says it’s hard when he has to miss birthdays, holidays and anniversaries.


“When you have to go, you have to go,” the 32-year-old said of the hectic and unpredictable schedule. “There’s been times when we’re all dressed up and ready to go and I’ll get a call.”

But the show captures plenty of moments when Melanson is with his family. He takes Gunnar on a trip down the fire pole, something that Cody has already perfected.

“I really wanted to make a project that shows what we do and take the more personal approach similar to Obama during the campaign,” said Melanson. “We are providing some hope to people.”

Melanson and other city officials are optimistic that the show will go a long way in helping Compton overcome its poor public image, which has been tainted by years of gang violence.

“We’re constantly battling the perception of the city. It’s constantly thought of as this bad place,” Melanson said. “There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity to shake it.”

Tyrese Gibson, a singer and actor best known for his role in the “Transformers” franchise, is one of the executive producers of the show. He also narrates the episodes. A native of South Los Angeles, Gibson believes the show can bolster Compton’s image and enrich BET’s programming.

“There’s stuff going on in the ‘hood every day, and not everything going on happens to be in the news. There’s a lot of great things happening and they should be applauded for that,” Gibson said. “However, there is so much work that could be done to make our communities better. Sometimes, it takes somebody from the streets to get through to somebody from the streets.”