After a more than 30 year career as Central Emergency Services’ first woman to move up the ranks to become a captain, Lesley Quelland has worked her last shift.
Quelland, who began at the department in 1985 as a secretary, worked her last shift on Sunday. She has stayed with CES through its consolidation from multiple fire departments into the service area it is today, and has overseen several projects, said CES Chief Roy Browning.
“She has a lot of history with the department as far as knowing how the consolidation happened, because one day we were all individual fire departments, and ambulances and it all got consolidated into what is called Central Emergency Services now or CES, so she knows a lot of history,” Browning said.
Quelland had always known she wanted to work in medicine, but was inspired by her high school friend Sam Palmer to enter emergency medical services, she said.
“I took an EMT class in Oregon and I was just hooked,” she said. “It was an opportunity to be able to help people in the community on their worst day, and to learn some training, to learn teamwork.”
Once in Alaska, she began attending CES drill nights after being encouraged by a group of emergency responders, including Rick Northey, who came into the former Sourdough Sal’s while she was working there early one morning.
“About 4 o’clock in the morning, here comes a whole crew of weary, dirty, tired firefighters,” she said. “In talking to them after their night of work in the dark and the cold, in realizing they were with the fire department, they were like, ‘Come on down!’”
After attending paramedic school in Denver in 1989, Quelland got a job on one of CES’s shifts in June, 1991.
From there, she worked her way up to being an engineer in 1994, and was promoted to the first female CES captain in October 2002.
“Truly an honor, truly a reward for a lot of hard work,” Quelland said of the promotion. “Women in the fire service were pretty few and far between when I came online in 1991, but we quickly learned that as long as we did our job, we knew what our job was … we embraced training, technology, and learned to be a really great team member, we could pull our weight, per say.”
In the years that followed her promotion, Quelland has participated in and led several projects for the department, Browning said. One of these was leading the upkeep of CES’s records management for the state.
Quelland was also a member of the department’s fire investigation team.
It’s the variety of the job and the people Quelland has worked with over the years that made it worth while, she said.
“You could be on a snow machine rescue on the Caribou Hills, you could be working a motor vehicle accident up in Cooper Landing, a structure fire,” she said. “Truly not any one particular (incident) but a lot of significant incidents that have helped me become the person that I am today.”
One of the hardest calls to respond to was the 2013 plane crash that killed 10 at the Soldotna Airport, she said.
Quelland recalled seeing the smoke from the accident as they were being called out, and the eerie stillness that followed when she said first responders realized there was nothing for them to do, and no one for them to help, after putting out the fire.
Quelland said one way everyone at CES is able to get through tough calls is through the tight, family-like bond they form working shifts together. She described the station as their home away from home, and her coworkers as family away from home.
Often, new firefighters will be anxious to go out on calls, so Quelland said she reminds them that whenever they have a lull in a shift, it means people in the community don’t need their help.
Browning added that Quelland’s positive attitude has been a boon for CES.
“She’s very optimistic,” he said. “She’s one of those persons that never — she doesn’t get down. You know, there are times when she’s frustrated but she’s always looking for a solution.”
Now that she’s leaving CES, Quelland said she is looking forward to being more able to focus on her family and friends. When her husband retired three years ago, she said it caused her to re-evaluate where she was at in her life and what she wanted out of it. She credits both her family and faith as her “greatest support and inspiration.”
The transition from fire and emergency services will not be an easy one, Quelland said.
“So many people, when they leave the fire department that defined who they were, and when you reintegrate into a ‘normal’ society, it was a hard transition,” she said.
Quelland still plans to be involved with CES and to help out where she can, she said.
“There will always be a part of every patient, every call that will always be with you,” she said.
CES will host a gathering from 1-4 p.m. Monday at Station 1 in Soldotna to celebrate Quelland’s retirement.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.