Compton officials christened a $3-million firefighting and rescue fleet Saturday -- the first significant update in the city's emergency response equipment in two decades.
The investment, made possible by federal block grant funds, allowed one of the nation's busiest fire departments to replace aging equipment that was prone to breakdowns.
No longer, said Fire Chief Rico Smith, would his firefighters need a tow from another city to get back from the scene of a fire. No longer would they pull up to an emergency with outdated rigs that had long made being a firefighter and paramedic there that much harder.
Smith surveyed the new equipment -- vehicle grilles emblazoned with American flags -- and promised himself that he would not get too emotional.
Five new fire engines, a 105-foot aerial ladder truck with pump and water tank, another unit capable of lighting up an area the size of a football field, six ambulances and two command vehicles -- are all ready to go to work for a department whose motto is "Meeting the Challenge."
The chance to start fresh with the best equipment is one few municipalities get, said Smith, who grew up in Compton and has been with the Fire Department for 32 years.
"I've never seen anything like this," he said.
Arson investigator Lionel Guerin, 51, wrapped Smith in a bear hug. "For years we couldn't get nothing, and we get all this in one year," Guerin said.
Compton, a city of 10 square miles and roughly 96,000 residents, ranks first in the nation among cities of its size for the volume of its paramedic responses, said Charlie Coleman, who runs the department's youth Explorer program.
Each year the city's 60 firefighters respond to between 9,800 and 11,000 emergency calls, most for medical assistance, he said.
The fact that the cash-strapped city was able to replace its entire fleet at once was a testament to "thinking outside the box," said Mayor Eric J. Perrodin.
City officials used federal money earmarked for projects that improve quality of life to finance the new emergency response equipment.
While the funding could not be used for operational expenses -- such as hiring personnel or increasing the city's law enforcement contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department -- city officials determined that it could pay for the equipment.
The update had been long in coming. Most of the existing fire engines had been purchased in the early 1980s.
The city's most up-to-date firetruck was bought in 1997 -- a bare-bones model made by a company that went out of business soon after, creating serious maintenance and repair issues.
The new rigs are loaded with state-of-the-art options, including the latest breathing apparatus, and were christened with sparkling cider that was quickly rinsed off the gleaming chrome bumpers.
"We don't want anything happening to this equipment," Smith said.
A few of the older rigs will be kept as backups. The rest will probably be resold in Mexico, said representatives of South Coast Fire Equipment, the Ontario-based dealer for the custom-built trucks that were made by Pierce Manufacturing in Wisconsin.
Compton had one of its most violent years in a decade in 2005 -- rocked by soaring gang violence that killed nearly 70 people in the city and at least 10 more in unincorporated areas within blocks of the city's boundary.
For many who came out to see the trucks up close, the experience proved to be an emotional one. Beyond the firefighting equipment itself, Compton residents saw hope in its purchase.
"It's a step in becoming a new city," said City Manager Barbara Kilroy, who has lived in Compton nearly 30 years, "but just a first step."
Smith said he considers the four city fire stations to be satellite City Halls, a place where neighborhood children can get guidance and consider career choices.
More than 180 Compton teenagers who have come through the Explorer program have gone on to work as emergency medical technicians, and more than 90 are active firefighters either in Compton or elsewhere in the country, Coleman said.
The next generation of recruits was out Saturday.
Malcolm Hope, 14, of Compton stood in a long row of blue uniforms with his hands tucked behind his back and watched the ceremony.
The new rigs "are wonderful," said Malcolm, who joined the program two months ago and is a student at Carson High School. Now, he said he knows what he wants to do when he grows up: "Be a firefighter."
It's a dream that Coleman, 44, said he believes could become reality. On Saturday, he recalled his own introduction to the department when he was about 13.
On the Compton street where he grew up, an infant had fallen into a swimming pool. The baby, he said, seemed lifeless. He watched as firefighters worked to revive the child. A few days later, Coleman saw the baby again, playing in its frontyard.
"I fell in love with the Compton Fire Department then and there," said Coleman, who walked to the neighborhood station and signed up. More than 30 years later, his life still revolves around the department.
"When the mayor and City Council said we were going to get this equipment, I didn't believe it," he said, looking at the freshly waxed rigs and recalling the years of making do with rag-tag machinery. "I'm speechless. I really want to cry."