Marcel Melanson didn't have it easy growing up in Inglewood, California. His father was in and out of his life, his mom struggled with drug abuse, and his brother died at an early age. "I wanted a sense of belonging, a sense of family," he says. "The streets were an easy place to turn." But rather than join a gang, he found a different surrogate clan: firefighters. "A lot of people say they joined the fire department to help people," Melanson says. "I joined to help myself."
Today, he's also helping others, thanks in part to a unique platform. As battalion chief of the Compton Fire Department, Melanson became a star of First In, a 10-episode reality show about the department that aired last fall on BET. A tech lover who constantly finds himself battling budgetary constraints—"It's just like at home," says the father of two young sons. "You wish there was a blank checkbook, but there's not"—Melanson has found in the show a springboard for his creative problem solving. It has brought major corporate partners to the department, including Motorola and Cisco, the latter of which is building a wireless mesh network linked up to a citywide camera system. "Imagine an earthquake," he says. "We could get a virtual look at the entire city and understand where damage is worst before putting boots on the ground." Even more important, the show has given him a megaphone for his ultimate quest: to improve the national standard of public safety.
At just 32, Melanson is one of the country's youngest battalion chiefs and one of the few African-Americans in such a position. His heavily tattooed body—something frowned upon in fire service—shouts untraditional. "People see him on TV and they're appalled; they can't see past his tattoos," says Michael Greene, a firefighter paramedic who has worked with Melanson for six years. "But you hear him speak and you see how bright he is, how much he knows, and you're just in awe."
Melanson and his department turned to technology long before cameras started rolling (his team calls him the "propeller" because of his change-inspiring thinking). They created a Facebook page and a Twitter account (@cptkid) to improve communication with a community that has almost as many known gangs (75) as it does fire-department employees (100). He also made sure every fire-fighter has a two-way radio, letting them alert others if they encounter trouble on-site. Previously, on-location communication was virtually nonexistent. "It was insulting," Melanson says. "Most fifth graders have cells. But you have a firefighter on the ground and we can't communicate." He's also working to outfit team members with tracking devices.
At a time when municipal budgets are being crunched, most departments aren't quick to adopt new technologies—but Melanson insists that the fixes are affordable. "We're a small department, but we're large in that we respond to 10,000 calls a year," he says. "If it's cost-effective for us, it can be cost-effective for anyone."
Producers decide this summer if First In will return for a second season, and though Melanson was displeased with the show's stereotypical depiction of Compton, he hopes they'll be back, furthering his opportunity to help organizations nationwide. "It heightened the awareness of our department and of the industry," he says. "A lot of people wouldn't think of public-safety professionals as people in business. But we are, and we're trying to improve."
I missed my younger boy's first birthday because I was at a fire in San Diego. Hindsight is 20/20, and he'll never have a first birthday again, but this is the oath I took with the job.
It's not a normal response, saving the life of a stranger. The normal response is to save yourself. But when you have people that put their lives at risk for others, it makes this job surreal.