Soldotna woman's career sparked at CES

Posted: Sunday, August 04, 2002

Lesley Quelland's eyes welled with tears as she remembered a call she, as a paramedic, responded to earlier this summer.

On call as a Central Emergency Services paramedic and engineer for 10, 24-hour shifts a month, Quelland knows, perhaps better than some, of the fragility of human life. Day in and day out she, along with many other members of the CES team, sees humankind at its absolute worst and best. Tragedy can and sometimes is just a part of the job description.

The 37-year-old's job is far from 9 to 5, where her day's work easily can be left at the front door when she gets home.

Additionally, being bombarded with mortality daily also is routine for her husband, Robbie, who is a sergeant with the Soldotna Police Department.


Quelland secures the patient before transporting

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Forgetting about the risks of day-to-day life can be harder for them than other couples.

"In our profession, I have to believe that God is a part of our lives. You don't dwell on it. Both of us know that just because we go out the door, we won't always come back, but we don't dwell on it," said Quelland.

Slim, with blond, wavy hair and hands that speak almost as eloquently as their owner, it isn't hard to imagine her as calm and collected in the daily demands of her job. But, still, in civilian clothes and off the clock -- save a beeper lying on the table next to her coffee and car keys -- Quelland is candid about the rawness of her chosen profession.

"There are days that are hard and we don't ever want to go back," she said, quickly adding that those moments are outweighed by the good days.


Quelland and Baker joke about how much or how little sleep they'll get after completing a call shortly before midnight earlier this month.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"I wake up in the morning and think, 'Wow, I get to go to work,'" she said.

"I stepped into this profession when I was 19 and never looked back."

Quelland was first introduced to the world of fire fighting and paramedics when she was still in high school. But when her father sent her a one-way ticket to Alaska, her plans were put on hold.

"He said, I'll get you here, but you'll have to find your own way home if you want to leave."


Surrounded by manuals detailing fire and medical procedures, Quelland completes the tall stack of paperwork that follows every call.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

She came without knowing there were no paramedic training programs in the state. So for her first few years on the Kenai Peninsula, despite beginning EMT training in her home state of Oregon, Quelland worked as a waitress at Sourdough Sal's restaurant in Soldotna.

"That's how I met some men at the fire department," she said, explaining they told her of an opening for a secretary with CES.

She got the job, and since then everything has pretty much fallen into place.

Since joining CES in 1985, Quelland has risen from a secretary to captain, a promotion that will officially take place in October.


Lesley Quelland works her first structure fire for Central Emergency Services in the mid-1980s.

Clarion File Photo

That isn't to say, though, that Quelland's road hasn't been without bumps and hard work.

"If you want it, you have to be willing to work hard enough to get it," said Quelland, who added that her career choice was tested when she was finally able to enroll in a paramedic training program in Denver in 1989.

"I had to ask myself, did I really want this. I knew in my heart this is really for me."

And it was.

A life in public service suits her perfectly, so perfectly that when her promotion takes place in two months, she will be the first woman captain on the peninsula and one of only three women employed by CES.

"It's very exciting, very humbling and I hope very rewarding," Quelland said of her promotion, adding that in a perfect world the promotion of a woman would not deserve the attention hers is receiving.

In 1992, CES restructured its command system and five men became the first captains in the service's history.

"It's too bad they didn't get the recognition my promotion is garnering. They deserve as much time and attention as anybody. They are the reason I have the opportunities I do."

However, the truth of the matter is, public service careers like fire fighting can still be a man's world.

Of the 344 firefighters killed in the rescue attempts after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, not one was a woman.

Quelland said this is because New York is a diehard, man's world-city where woman do not have the same chances to excel in leadership positions within the profession as she has had.

"Departments like New York are the exception, not the rule anymore. It's not like it used to be," she said.

At CES, women employees are treated the same as the men, Quelland said.

"I think our department is used to it. It's not a new, dramatic change. The guys are really good as long as we do our jobs, as long as we carry our weight."

New CES Chief Jeff Tucker came from a department in Gainsville, Fla., where there are a lot of women in the fire service, Quelland said.

"I am very glad that we have a proactive chief. I think CES is progressive, will continue to be progressive."

As a new captain, Quelland will have a chance to play a key role in maintaining the commitment to equality that CES's current and former administrators have established.

Captains are ultimately responsible for each decision made at a scene, she said.

"You have to be able to make choices and decisions to guide your team. Under very stressful situations it's a mutual trust of respect. You are only as good as your shift. That's why we do a lot of training together on standard operating procedure. There is no set cookbook because every scene is different."

Just as life on the job is unpredictable, Quelland's personal life also is full and potentially hectic.

When the Quellands married in February 1999, their union blended two families from previous marriages. Robbie had two sons -- David and Anthony -- and two daughters -- Michelle and Katherine, and Lesley had a daughter, Justice. Together they have a son, Cody.

When all six children are at the same home, the Quellands have one full house.

She said she saw early on in her career what happened when men and women in her profession got too wrapped up in their professional lives, forgetting about their families at home. That is something, she and her husband try hard to avoid.

"When I get to the end of my life, I want to look back and have very few regrets and feel very, very blessed that I got to live the life that I did," she said.

Although the Quellands may live similar lives professionally, they try to make their personal lives their own -- allowing themselves to sever the ties to their jobs on occasion.

"It's up to each person how much impact their job has on them. I have learned over the years that there is a time for the release," she said.

While like any professional, Quelland is aware of the way her reactions on the job can affect a victim or family members, but she doesn't believe in keeping emotions pent up inside forever.

"Allowing yourself to be human and your shift mates to be human (is important). One of the harsh lessons in life -- you can't save everybody. Sometimes people hurt themselves bad enough to die," she said, adding the harder scenes are the ones where innocent victims are the ones hurt the worst.

"It used to be, if you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen, but it isn't that way anymore," she said, explaining that after particularly upsetting calls, teams are called in for debriefing and stress counseling.

"If we don't take care of our own people, we can't take care of other people. We see people everyday who go out of their doors and get in a car accident. We can't base our lives on those fears. Most of the times you get past it knowing that you did the absolute best you could for that person."

Still, in a community as small as the one served by CES, Quelland frequently sees people who recognize her.

"Some people look the other way because you remind them of a tragedy," she said, adding that not taking the snubs personally is just another aspect of her job.

"People are entitled to their personal, private lives."

Since Sept. 11, people in her profession also have received a lot of public attention. While, the accolades are appreciated, Quelland said fire service men and women will continue to do their jobs even once the after effects of Sept. 11 have died down.

"It is unfortunate Sept. 11 happened. Life is fragile. Life is precious. This is what we do. This is not for the recognition. Everybody likes the recognition, but it's not why we're in the profession."

Even for the most dedicated, with a true love for their job, the pressures of the profession can wear on a person. So CES and other public service agencies have a 20-and-out program. Quelland will be eligible for retirement in nine years, meaning Quelland could retire and choose an entirely different life.

"I think in my next career I want to be a Wal-Mart greeter," she said jokingly, but adding seriously that if in nine years she is still enjoying her job, she won't change a thing.

"I love it here. This is where my home is."

However, Robbie, who also is 37 and eligible to retire when he's 45, is a little more of a restless transplant. Originally from Minnesota, the former Air Force military police officer moved to Alaska in 1991 from Texas. While he is content for now, when he is eligible for retirement, Quelland said she can see him wanting to move elsewhere and try something new.

For now, though, they are both equally committed to educating and protecting peninsula residents.

"We have found that education of the public is our best ally, our best defense of public against protecting them from the things we hate most," she said.

Each officer has something different that truly angers and scares them, she said. For some it is drunk drivers, for others it could be drugs and alcohol or not simply buckling up. Whatever the offense, call volume at CES has significantly increased since Quelland first started.

"People are finding new ways to make wrong choices," she said, noting the increase in the number of calls has necessitated that CES hire three new firefighters on top of potentially one-third of the the captains retiring out in the next three years. Everything combined means a big turnover in staff for CES.

Quelland, though, is rolling with the times in part due to the assistance and support her network of friends and family has provided her.

Friendships made early on in Quelland's career with current CES captain and his wife, Randy and Marylou Willis, also have provided a lifetime of support from a couple who knows the public service routine.

"Of all the people I have worked with, he is the one who has really supported me both verbally and nonverbally. He never doubted me. Their family is about as close as you can be without being marriage- or blood-related. I would not be where I am without them."

And it goes without saying that the family bonds are strong.

"Robbie always puts our family first and adjusts his schedule because I can't change mine," Quelland said.

But he isn't the only one she leans on.

"My dad has probably always been my biggest fan," Quelland said.

Robbie's mom, Kate Quelland, also supports the careers of her son and daughter-in-law by watching their children when schedules conflict.

"My life is full, so blessed," Quelland said. "When I'm off, I'm on to other things. I appreciate my family. They won't always be there."

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