By Jeff Pfeiffer
“I’ve been heavily approached about reality shows for the last couple of years,” Tyrese Gibson tells me at the start of our interview, “[but] I purposely stayed away from it. I don’t want to be a part of ‘baboon TV.’ I want to be a part of TV that’s really going to shed some light on some serious issues and really highlight the heroes of our generation.”
The singer/actor/model (and now digital comic-book creator) has found that opportunity. It’s the new reality series First In, premiering tonight on BET and airing Wednesdays, which Gibson co-executive produces and narrates. The show dramatically captures the daily lives of the firefighters and paramedics of the Compton Fire Department — both on the job and at home. The city of Compton, in south-central Los Angeles, has its own unique challenges for someone working as a first responder there. With a high concentration of gangs and related violence in the area, that may not only raise the number of potential victims that the department will have to assist — Gibson notes that the Compton department gets 10,000 ER calls per year, compared to most departments, which may have around 4,000 — but it can also put those very workers in danger themselves.
“The firemen and the ambulance tend to show up to a lot of the scenes of crimes before the police even get there,” says Gibson. “… Anybody can start shooting at any given moment while [first responders] are on the scene trying to help somebody else that’s shot. It gets dangerous.”
But while this aspect of Compton and cities like it tend to be given most of the press, Gibson jumped at the chance to get involved with this series because it does not only focus on such negative elements.
“I went into it with a more positive thought,” he says. “We specifically didn’t want the show to be heavily focused on gang violence, even though it’s going on. We wanted to show firemen putting out fires, we wanted to show firemen with the Jaws of Life saving lives in accidents, we wanted to show them saving kids who may have had slip-and-fall accidents. … There’s negative stuff going on over here every day, and whether it’s on camera or not really doesn’t matter — it’s still going on. So when you’ve got the Schwarzeneggers and the local politicians and all these folks that are overseeing these communities, I’m like, listen. I feel like there’s so much more that can be done to eradicate these problems. Obviously negative things always get more light than positive things, so I just wanted to shed some light on what’s really going on in the city of Compton. There’s a lot of positive things going on … Best Buy is out there now, Toys R Us, and a lot of real mainstream companies have now built in Compton. And there’s also a bunch of community activists and leaders who are working every single day to make Compton a much more comfortable place to live.”
Key to enhancing the quality of life in Compton are the emergency responders featured in First In. Among them are Marcel Melanson, Deputy Chief (and one of the youngest battalion chiefs in the nation); Jerome Goodall, ambulance operator; Shon Halverson (“Halvo”), firefighter; Danny Salazar, firefighter; and Marcus Wilson, probationary firefighter.
“The access that we got [to the department] was unprecedented,” Gibson says. “We got to the real grass roots, nitty-gritty. They let us all the way in.”
Because of the nature of the show, we don’t get all the way in to their lives immediately as viewers, which is good. We get to start to know them personally only in brief snippets, as they are often called away to duty in their very busy city. It’s a good idea for producers to have made this a half-hour series. The short, quick amount of time we spend with these workers really drives home the almost constant tension they are under, and how they can be called away at any minute from any personal time. It’s particularly easy to sympathize with Marcel, who can barely get in a phone conversation with his wife and children before another call comes in. Already from the first two episodes it appears his job may be taking a toll as he struggles to find a way of holding his family together as smoothly as he runs his department.
“The divorce rate for firemen is really high,” says Gibson, “because of the commitment of 3, 4 days on, a couple days off. A police officer gets to go home every night after his shift, but a fireman has to be there 3, 4 days straight. … It really takes a toll on your emotions, too. You’re exposed to some rough stuff.”
Growing up in Watts, Gibson was exposed to some of the rough stuff himself and can relate to what is happening in Compton. “Compton is my backyard,” he says. “Everything that’s going on [there], I was impacted, just like they were impacted by what was going on in Watts.”
He can also relate to the sometimes ambivalent relationship residents in these communities may have with emergency responders.
“The relationship with us — me and my boys [when we were living] in the hood — when it comes to the police, there’s a lot of conflict. But when it comes to the firemen, and the ambulance, we love them. They’re coming here to save one of the homies that got shot. They’re coming in here to save the family — grandma, grandpa that may have had a heart attack, that may have slipped and fell, could be anything. They’re coming over here to save, and help and keep alive.”
As we see in First In, these workers also help lives in ways not as immediate or dramatic as pulling someone out from under a crushed car. Gibson cites how they work with young people so they hopefully don’t have to be called to rescue these kids from a violent situation someday.
“The firefighters have this Explorer program [in one episode we see Halvo working with his stepson in this program], and they deal with a lot of the kids in these communities that are at-risk youth. They mentor them and teach them and embrace them. A lot of these kids don’t have fathers, so they look up to the firemen as if they are their fathers.”
Also looking up to the firemen are the everyday citizens of Compton. And this show succeeds very well in presenting the average, law-abiding people of the community who find themselves in terrible situations not from breaking the law, but from unfortunate circumstances — car crashes, falls, even a plane crash. Based on the first two episodes, First In offers a better, and different, understanding of this community and its people by not resorting to only Cops-like antics and arrests. You really feel for the people who are in trouble. And Gibson hopes the fostering of such understanding can spread to other, similar cities.
“We’re touching on a lot of serious issues that are going on in these communities,” Gibson says. “We started in Compton and we’re going to move to a different city next. Spin it off in different cities and states.”
Gibson also wouldn’t mind seeing this show, and any spinoffs, boost the interest of people in wanting to become emergency responders.
“To be honest, I’ve always thought of firemen, police officers, military, armed forces, nurses, the medical field … I really think of these people as angels, and real heroes. … I play heroes in films, but … they really do this every single day. There was a huge bump in people wanting to be firemen after September 11 impacted our country. Now it’s time for the cameras to get back on these firemen and really shed some light on what the identity of a real hero is.
“I used to always say that when you’re in South Central L.A. you tend to want to become what you see. I tell people all the time I dream with my eyes open. I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. Some people are like, ‘Oh, it must be like a dream to have a career like yours.’ I never dreamed this. I never seen it coming. I wanted to become what I saw. So once I was exposed to these images of these people and these heroes in these situations, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m curious, I want to figure out a way to be a part of this.’ I would be lying — if I told you that me being exposed to these fireman coming over, pulling out all of this equipment and cutting T-shirts off of people when they’re shot, wounded in accidents, and the Jaws of Life and all of this — I would be lying if I told you I didn’t want to do that.”
photos credit Adrian Sidney/BET