TV as Demolition: When the TV Show “Emergency” Filmed in Compton

Screenshot from “Survival on Charter #220”

One of my less productive minor obsessions is with the 1970s TV show “Emergency.” It began when a saw a bit of an episode set in San Francisco, which led me to buy a set of DVD that included the episode when “Emergency” filmed in San Francisco so I could learn the details of the episode. That required watching the whole episode, unfortunately, which was not fun (it is not outstanding television).

The DVD set included an episode about a plane crash called “Survival on Charter #220”.

As I watched the episode, I became curious about its “making of” story — huge explosions in the middle of a city aren’t common, even in Los Angeles. I knew that it was filmed in Compton, California (Los Angeles County), but how did they pick that location? Was it also a training exercise for the fire department? Were the buildings already slated for demolition?

The “Emergency” TV Show as a Demolition Crew

The Los Angeles Times archive was the natural place to start. I ran into a lot of dead ends — not able to come up with ideal search terms, there was a lot of next paging and ctrl-clicking. I built a list of a few articles and went to the UC Berkeley library to see the full text. One of the articles was exactly what I was looking for:

“Plane Crash, Explosion Startle Compton Residents — But It Was All Just for Play,” by Tom Gorman in the October 6, 1977 Southeast Edition.  Here’s the beginning of the story:

Fire Chief Monroe Smith pointed to the man across the street and remarked, “That guy has bragged he’s burned this house down four times and nobody’s arrested him.”

A few minutes later the house was on fire for a fifth time, flames shooting skyward…

A field reporter for all-news radio station KFWB saw the flames and smoke and the crashed airplane and quickly notified his newsroom.

Within moments the news was broadcast on the air.

Indeed, the fiery havoc at the corner of Laurel St. and Willowbrook Ave., just a block from City Hall, seemed authentic.

But this was highly-staged flames and explosions, and carefully placed aircraft pieces, for a (not very good) television program.

The producers had searched hard for locations in Los Angeles County for the big booms and flames (not an easy task). They somehow connected with the Compton Community Redevelopment Agency, which wanted to demolish some buildings to make way for redevelopment.  So it turned into a “win-win”: in exchange for demolishing the buildings, paying a small business license fee, and hiring extra police and firefighters, the filmmakers could use the site for their fires and explosions.

Ironically, the first step in the demolition was to spruce up the doomed buildings with new paint and new lawns, while fixing up interiors for pre-crash shooting. The crew did such a good job that passersby asked if the houses were for rent.

The shoot required 100 crew people, $80,000 in special effects (about $315,000 in 2016 dollars). More from the article:

After shooting some scenes, the crews returned, only to spend eight days destroying the same houses, trucking in several pieces of airplane fuselage to be placed on the wrecked structures, cutting down trees, placing demolished cars in strategic locations and setting up elaborate gas lines and other fixtures that would provide the necessary fire and smoke.

The piece de resistance was engineered by special effects man Dave Lopez: the placing of hundreds of gallons of gasoline, plastic explosives and dynamite in a two-story house to be blown up….a quick succession of three blasts sent a fireball more than 100 feet in the air.

The studio hired a glass company to be on call in the area in case of window damage. And it was a good idea, as windows in several houses and a church were shattered by the explosions.

The filming occurred at Laurel and S. Willowbrook in Compton, but that intersection no longer exists, as a section of Laurel was eliminated during the redevelopment and turned into an alley or driveway. To find the location on current maps, look to the east of this spot on S. Willowbrook in Compton near City Hall.

I was disappointed that the article fails to mention air pollution issues — the fires and explosions were created in the middle of the most the most polluted air basin in the United States, a region with a energetic pollution control agency (SCAQMD). Did the crew get permits? Are certain types of filming exempt from air quality rules? Were they fined for open burning as they were fined for the filming in San Francisco?

So there you have it: filmmakers wanted to burn some buildings and make things go boom; a city had buildings they needed gone.

Finally, here’s a fun fact about Compton: there is a short street named Cocoa a few blocks south of City Hall, along the southern border of Compton High School.  It is a fully residential street, but perhaps someone is running a “Cocoa Street Chocolates” from their house.

“Plane Crash, Explosion Startle Compton Residents — But It Was All Just for Play,” by Tom Gorman, Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1977, Southeast Edition, page 2.


  1. I disagree that Emergency was “not a very good show.” Maybe it wasn’t Emmy material, with cheesy dialog at times, but how many shows can you credit for creating public awareness and providing the inspiration for communities all over the United States to start their own paramedic programs and rescue squads?

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    I did not know that Emergency had such an important role in improving emergency preparedness and paramedic/rescue infrastructure. That’s a much more noble legacy than probably 90% of the TV shows that have ever aired.

    Is the influence of the show described in any books or DVD extras? I recall seeing a book that covers the history of the series, but haven’t read it. Perhaps I’ll look into it and update the post someday.

    Even without knowing about their influence on community paramedic programs, my assessment was probably a bit harsh. Most episodes have important lessons about safety and help demystify what emergency workers do every day.

  3. I just saw this episode on Cozi TV, thank you for this information. I was looking up how they were able to have the magnitude of the explosions and the elaborate set on this episode. While they’ve had some fiery scenes and at least one other plane crash episode that I’ve seen in the series, this one was huge. EMERGENCY! was one of my favorite shows to watch, as a kid I looked at reruns and it inspired family members to enter the profession it depicted. Yeah your assessment is a little harsh, but procedural shows like this (and the era of this particular one) aren’t for everyone. I loved these LA Jack Webb and RA Cinader shows, the nostalgia hasn’t worn off for me! Thanks again.

  4. Love this show. Still watch it and own it. This show was what got me into the field of EMS/FIRE/RESCUE. Grew up watching. Hope to see the station and equipment oneday.

  5. Instead of complaining, how about what was spent in production? Emergency! Was the most expensive productions on air. The show was more than a show, it was a movement. I was in EMS back then. The procedures that Squad 51 did was the beginning of Advanced Life Support. How many lives have been saved?

  6. As a previous commenter noted, Emergency! has perhaps had a larger impact on day-to-day society than any other single television show. I was 10 years old when the series premiered and I and thousands of my peers will tell you that Emergency! was not only the inspiration that brought hundreds of thousands from my generation into firefighting and EMS (both paid and volunteer), but the generation that followed us, and now the generation following that. 49 years after it’s premiere, it’s still inspiring people.

  7. I always wondered what it takes to do TV or movies. I didn’t watch “Emergency” too much back in the 70’s. I now watch it on Cozi and have seen every episode more then once. I love the show. I knew some firemen and am deeply grateful for their service.

    1. I’ve been seeing it on DVD (have all of it– well worth the money), and IMO (you may disagree), despite the film damage evident in much of season three, almost all of season four, and all of season five, the show is better there than on the classic television cable/satellite networks because of one thing– no commercials (by which I mean that far too many commercial breaks can take one out of the storyline of any particular show, past or present; my father complains about this a lot).

  8. Yes because at the time I was an O operator for General Telephone and we still took emergency calls and had to patch them in to fire and police. We really did need the paramedic program as I heard people in fires and have heart attacks a lot. It was distressing to hear and took too long to patch. I heard a man perish on the telephone. I know there were some corny storylines sometimes but us laymen learned a lot about first aide and how important it is for drivers to yield to emergency vehicles. They addressed all of these issues in the show.

  9. It was and is a well-known fact that because of this show we most likely would not have the modern EMS system we have today. When the show first air a little over 59 years ago only 12 fire departments had such a system. Today over 90% of all Americans are within 5-10 minutes of EMS care. This little show saved lives.

  10. I Saw This Episode A Couple Of Weeks Ago. And Wondered How They Did That. One Of My Thoughts Had Been Just What I Read. Demolition Of Neighborhood. Although, I Asked Google If There Was An Actual Plane Crash In Los Angeles Neighborhood. There Was One, In 1986 It Crashed Into A Mexican Neighborhood Of Los Angeles. It Was Coming From Mexico. And They Showed A Shot From The Air. And It Was About The Same Size Of What They Did In Emergency Episode. So Bizarre. 60 On Plane Were Killed. And 40 On The Ground.

  11. My father was a fireman and we always watched this when I was a kid. It was one of my favorite shows! And now I watch all the reruns all the time. I know it’s kind of cheesy but it beats the garbage that is on tv now!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.