Working as a Luzerne County 911 telecommunicator specialist, Melisa Hanna must maintain a sense of detachment when she’s concentrating on the emergency response needs of callers.
“We have to hold our emotions in all day. When you’re taking calls, you don’t have time to feel. You’re like a robot almost,” said the Nanticoke woman.
So she didn’t know what to expect when she was asked to handle a different kind of assignment — delivery of a parting farewell over the emergency radio broadcast for Tony Wilczynski, chief of the Nuangola Volunteer Fire Department, who died Tuesday.
It’s a tradition known as a “last call” that requires the messenger to express a sense of heartfelt sentiment and gratitude.
“I practiced it a few times, and even then I got choked up,” said Hanna, who started working at 911 almost five years ago.
Written by the department’s firefighters, the communication opened with dispatcher calls from Luzerne County to “chief 164,” followed by emergency tones.
The department also is known as Nuangola Station 164.
Hanna’s message thanked Wilczynski, 75, for his more than 45 years of leadership, commitment and exemplary service, saying his community and department “have been made stronger and better by his efforts.”
There also was a moment of silence.
“Although you are gone, you will never be forgotten, Chief Wilczynski. This is your last call,” the message continued. “You will be remembered with our utmost respect and deepest gratitude.”
“Rest easy now,” Hanna concluded. “We’ll take it from here.”
Hanna said she was crying and shaking as she delivered the tribute and almost dropped her paper. She was determined to speak softly and clearly to show respect.
“I kept pausing trying to hold it in. It’s definitely something really hard to do,” she said.
As she prepared, she thought of his willingness to sacrifice his time and safety to help others and of her own family members who have served in the military and law enforcement.
She never met Wilczynski but said she and her colleagues view all outside emergency responders as “our unseen family.”
“We don’t get to see their faces or talk to them,” Hanna said. “This is something small we can give back to the people who serve this county.”
The Nuangola Fire Department also sounded its siren Friday to “call our departed chief home” on the day of his memorial service, encouraging residents to remember and honor him, the department’s Facebook page said.
Firefighter Eric Boyer, 34, who started volunteering when he was 14, said Wilczynski will leave a lasting legacy.
“We learned a lot from him,” Boyer said.
The chief was a fixture in the ticket booth at fundraising bazaars and always worried about making sure the department had funds to continue operating, Boyer added.
As his illness worsened, Wilczynski offered to step down as chief, Boyer said. The firefighters refused to accept any resignation.
“He was always there,” Boyer recalled.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.