Profiles Of Women Rising To Leadership Part 1
March 23, 2022
Joni Harvey, State of Michigan 911 Coordinator
Joni Harvey’s skills as a leader surfaced way before the notion was in her head. She coordinated a coed non-school affiliated softball team in grade school. She organized school assignments in high school and handed them in on time without reminders. She took risks not because she wanted to be a “first,” but because she wanted the challenge of proving she could do it.
Take, for example, her entry into public safety prompted by her son’s medical emergency. Harvey called 911 and a neighbor stepped out of the emergency vehicle. The neighbor, she knew, was a firefighter although Harvey had never realized he responded to fires and medical emergencies. She was impressed and with her natural drive to plow new ground, she certified and hired on as a paid on-call firefighter. A visit to Livingston County Central Dispatch was a surprise or, more precisely, a shock. “It was call after call. Chaos. It was very different from anything I had anticipated,” Harvey said. “These people were rock stars. How does someone get to become a 911 dispatcher? I have to go try this.”
Harvey had no direct experience. She was a volunteer firefighter and data analyst. She took the required civil service exam and was among the 10% called in for an interview. Harvey's answer to the standard question of “Why do you want to become a dispatcher?” was not the standard “Because I want to help people” reply. She did want to help the public but believes she was hired for the answer she did give them: “I want to do something not everybody can do and that allows me to be the best I possibly can be.”
That goal would come as she advanced.
Harvey's initial goal was surviving the rigorous training and learning the hierarchy of a dispatch center. She had the knack but felt overwhelmed. Was she destined to drown in the sea of information and multitasking?
“Suddenly it clicked,” she said. “I got it. I could anticipate what the next step would be in response to the needs of the emergency field responders. I was thinking ahead. I had the personality it takes. This was something extraordinary that I could do.”
Then came the promotions all the way up to deputy director during her 15 years at Livingston County Dispatch. As was her experience, Harvey was great at organizing and coordinating. But leadership? Not at the start. Harvey was a micromanager. She saw a lot in her style that she disliked and that did not enamor her to staff.
She made a conscientious decision to change. She attended conferences and workshops. She modeled behavior of women she admired. The way they interacted with their audience. Delivering the message effectively. Voice tones and inflections and eye contact. At the end of the day, she wanted to be perceived as someone her team trusted to do the right thing.
“That’s how future leaders are made,” she said. “We succeed because of an incredible support network. It’s not about having all the answers or thinking that you do. It’s about finding the right answer and not the rush for a quick reply.”
The self-reflection and concerted effort paid off. Among other accolades, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) recognized Livingston County Dispatch as 2017 Team of the Year for their response to a 53-vehicle traffic pileup. Harvey walked the floor, persuading dispatchers to take breaks while she took calls from emergencies all over the county and trusted her team to coordinate response at the crash scene.1
Micromanaging is long absent from Harvey’s leadership style. She accepts mistakes as opportunities to improve for herself and her team. As the State of Michigan’s 911 Director for the past two years, she draws on the expertise available around her. She is open to perspectives that aren’t always in agreement. She tries to stay a step ahead. She believes in going for the challenges despite reservations.
“You never know how good you will be at something until you try,” she said.
Through it all, Harvey remains a telecommunicator at heart.
“The humanity of the profession stays with me,” she said. “That will never go away.”
Harvey’s advice to women carving their path in emergency communications is:
- Understand the key perspectives and skillsets you bring to 911 and wear the day’s hat accordingly.
- Learn about yourself—take a good look in the mirror—and experiment with various methods of doing something until finding the method that works for you (trial and error).
- Accept that you will make mistakes—it’s part of growing—and don’t expect to walk into a room and be the best at what you’re walking into right off the bat. There’s always a learning curve.
- Develop the mindset of “I can do this”—you are stronger than you might think you are.
- Remember: Your actions set the tone for the next generation.
- Above all, stay passionate about what you do and acknowledge the invaluable support you give to others in the profession.
1 Bromley S. “‘Complete, organized chaos’: 911 dispatch staff honored after 53 vehicle pileup.” 2017; Oct. 26. https://www.livingstondaily.com/story/news/local/community/livingston-county/2017/10/26/complete-organized-chaos-9-1-1-heroes-honored-after-53-vehicle-pileup-livingston-county-dispatch/803996001/ (accessed Dec. 13, 2021).
Jennifer Kirkland, Manager at Grand Junction Regional Communications Center (GJRCC), Colorado
Jennifer Kirkland holds tight to a lesson she learned during the early days of dispatcher training at the Vail Public Safety Communications Center, Vail, Colorado (USA).
Keep your focus on the job, NO MATTER WHAT.
Kirkland had been momentarily distracted making a cellphone call immediately following the terrorist attack on New York City’s Twin Towers (Sept. 11, 2001). She was two months into training. She wanted to touch base with her parents.
Neither the time nor place despite the catastrophic event, she realized.
Emergency communications required her total attention. Kirkland has not veered from that focus over the 20 years of her career, although, true to multitasking abilities, she manages to turn her attention laser-sharp to the task at hand. As Manager at Grand Junction Regional Communications Center (GJRCC), that means “doing the best I can for the people entrusted to my leadership,” she said. “I’m not there to tell them where they should go but to guide them in reaching goals they’ve set for themselves.”
At one point, not long into her career, Kirkland had second thoughts, and 911 nearly lost her to a managerial position at a medical office complex. Vail Public Safety Communications was not immune to the problems plaguing centers everywhere: low pay, benefits not on par with others in public safety, high turnover, low morale, limited advancement. Kirkland was not eager to leave but believed she was powerless to effect change.
Dwight Henninger, Vail’s police chief, pulled her aside. He encouraged her to stay and give the profession another chance. She had a talent and enthusiasm for emergency communications. Henninger had always recognized her leadership potential.
Kirkland relented. “Only a small percentage of people can do this work, and I was one of them,” she said. “Should I throw away this gift? No.”
She was assured of the value she added and how she could continue to build on that.
Kirkland learned of the CCM program (Communications Center Manager by Fitch & Associates and the IAED™), and the new 911 manager approved her attendance. “That was the turning point in my career,” Kirkland said. The course enhanced her leadership skills and, more importantly, made her take a hard look inside. “I couldn’t expect to lead people unless I learned about myself.”
Kirkland’s career took off. She focused on people skills. She applied newly learned coaching techniques. She was more conscientious of listening and exploring perspectives other than her own. Kirkland collaborated with fellow CCM students and created connections that have reached across the country. She teaches 911 professionals. She draws full classrooms at seminars, workshops, and conferences.
The connections led her to GJRCC. In the past several years, Kirkland has secured formal recognition from the local city council, recognizing 911 personnel as first responders. She facilitated strategic planning processes for agencies in Colorado and worked with a statewide organization of 911 professionals to develop a basic training curriculum for the state’s telecommunicators. She serves, by governor appointment, as the 911 representative on Colorado’s Task Force on Responder Safety. She and GJRCC navigated the challenges COVID presented and, she proudly says, trained 14 new EMDs during the pandemic peak. The center achieved medical Accredited Center of Excellence recognition.
Kirkland admits she didn’t have a plan at the very start of her career. She always had confidence in herself, although not necessarily certain of the direction she would take in her career.
Now, change is what she can affect in 911. She no longer answers calls or dispatches responses, and she is dedicated to helping others find their direction. “I am a force for good in the profession,” she said. “I lead my team into the future and try to be ready for what comes down the pike.”
Kirkland’s advice to aspiring women in the 911 profession includes:
- Stay open to possibilities.
- Don’t close yourself in because of doubt or perceived lack of opportunity.
- Look ahead, while realizing that a career path can take turns.
- Accept the responsibility of helping women coming in behind you.
- Involve others in projects—not only will that bolster their confidence but also increase the likelihood of retention.
- Make personal connections wherever you go.
- Draw on the strength of your team. Trust their choices.
- Finally, take advantage of every training opportunity. Learn as much as you can.
Roxanne Van Gundy, ENP, RPL Director, Lyon County Emergency Communications Center, Kansas (USA), President, Kansas NENA Chapter
Roxanne “Roxy” Van Gundy knew she was good at emergency communications. She’d been an emergency dispatcher at Lyon County Emergency Communications Center, Kansas (USA), for five years before moving to Fairbanks, Alaska (USA), in 2009 for a change in scenery. She and her husband packed up everything and continued their public safety careers in a state not even remotely like Kansas.
For starters, Kansas fits into Alaska eight times. Something you might not think about, unless in public safety, but only 20% of Alaska’s roads are paved versus on average 91% for the other 49 states. During the long, cold grip of winter, Alaskans build ice roads to traverse rivers and ground that is otherwise too soft to drive.1 The bulk of these roads provide only access to remote communities.
Van Gundy was a dispatcher for Alaska state troopers, D Detachment, in Fairbanks. At the time Van Gundy was there, two dispatch centers served the 163,700 square miles of land within the D Detachment. D Detachment also served as the primary or secondary source of law enforcement for over 30 villages in Interior Alaska.2
“In the lower 48, an officer will get there,” she said. “In Alaska, it can take hours or overnight for an officer to respond. People deal with the problem, and it’s up to the dispatcher to figure out what to do for them. In a search and rescue, a trooper can’t always come to the person. There were times there was nothing I could do to help.”
The couple stayed five years, returning to Kansas in 2014 for family reasons. Van Gundy said she came back a different dispatcher.
“The tragic, awful things that happened made me stronger than I could ever have been [if not for dispatching in Fairbanks],” she said. “I always knew I had the skills. I always knew what I was doing. I now believed I could do anything.”
Lyon County Emergency Communications Center welcomed Van Gundy “home.” She offered not only a stronger skill set, but also a determination to help other dispatchers reconciling anger related to their calls and dispatch. She had handled two line-of-duty deaths while in Alaska. There was no post-incident debriefing. “You have Christmas with these folks,” Van Gundy said. “You celebrate birthdays. When they pass, it’s like losing a brother. It was hard.” At times, she felt alone in her grief.
Van Gundy expanded her reach to help make the 911 experience better for other dispatchers. She joined the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and presents at the NENA conference among others.. Her message underlines the value they give public safety and their impact on the public and responders. She is active in 911der Women, advocating the importance of conversation and letting go, not holding onto the pain or anger. 911der Women is a nonprofit organization created to support women in emergency communications.
“It’s OK if you don’t feel OK,” she said. “There are things that happen and talking about it helps. You are not alone.”
Van Gundy was encouraged and said “yes” to apply for the director position at the communication center. Creating the environment she remembered from past years was a priority. “I wanted to get the center to feel like it was home. I wanted people to support one another. I wanted to make sure people were connecting.”
In her fourth year as director, Van Gundy is confident she has achieved what she set out to do. They have a place where they come together as a team. She holds high expectations. They are working toward becoming an IAED™ medical Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE).
Leadership, she said, is listening and providing the support her team needs, be it technology, compliance, resources to handle stress and rebound, and an open ear. She was instrumental in changing the Kansas Intrastate Emergency Mutual Aid Act to include 911 public safety telecommunicators as emergency responders. They are in the same classification as the people they dispatch.
The campaign took tenacity, Van Gundy said, as does achieving leadership in emergency communications. “When you’re a woman, you have to work harder to prove you will get things done,” she said. “You must prove you are built tough enough to stick it out. You are not going to make everyone happy all the time. Tell me a leader who does.”
Van Gundy’s advice is this:
- Stay firm in the belief of what you want to be.
- Don’t be afraid to promote yourself (it’s about knowing your worth).
- Tell yourself: I can make things happen. I am worthy of this position.
1 “How Big is Alaska? Compare Kansas to Alaska.” https://www.alaska.org/how-big-is-alaska/kansas (accessed Jan. 7, 2022).
2 “D Detachment.” Alaska Department of Public Safety, State Troopers. https://dps.alaska.gov/AST/DDetachment/Home (accessed Jan. 7, 2022).
Diann Pritchard Dispatch Supervisor, Cripple Creek Police Department
Nearly 40 years ago I became the second woman to join a volunteer fire department. That first year was a real test. The first woman was the deputy chief’s wife, so they didn’t give her as many challenges as they did me. We had infiltrated the “boys club” and weren’t welcomed.
I endured numerous pranks that would not be tolerated or acceptable today. I was issued men’s-sized bunkers and boots, which weren’t safe. I was told it wasn’t worth buying gear to fit me because I might not make it. At times I was called “honey” in a condescending tone.
During a regional fire tower training, I was (accidently?) issued a faulty SCBA regulator and needed to buddy-breathe with the trainer’s equipment to get out. They used real smoke back then. He said I had to go back in with him if I wanted to get certified. I was the lead as we crawled through the smoke dragging a fire hose. The firefighter who follows keeps contact with the lead’s boots. Down in that smoky tower he propositioned me. I said I was done and crawled out alone. When outside I informed him what he could do with his certificate, and I walked off.
On another occasion a co-firefighter made a very crude remark to which I responded by punching him in the face—maybe not the best response and certainly wouldn’t be acceptable today, but it got my point across at the time. (Note: This is the only time in my life I ever hit anyone, and I still can’t believe, or condone, that I hit him.)
I persevered and continued to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). After about a year, the men finally seemed to accept my role as beneficial, especially when it came to dealing with children and women during responses. I became a Lieutenant and held that position for 16 years. I’m still proud of my single-bugle lapel pins and Lieutenant badge. I finished my 23-year FF/EMT career with Cripple Creek’s volunteer division.
When I turned 50, I exchanged my EMT card for an AARP card and Fire & Police Pension Association (FFPA) benefits. Over the years several women joined my first department and were a welcome and valued addition.
“What inspiration can you provide to women who want to achieve leadership positions?”
I have been in the dispatch world for 26 years. I’m a supervisor and have been a director. I tell the members of the team that each one of them have leadership roles. You don’t need a title to be a leader. My advice is this:
- Genuinely be part of the team and remain part of the team, even as responsibilities or titles grow.
- Demonstrate integrity in your personal and professional life.
- Be trustworthy.
- Once trust is broken it is never regained 100%. It may be forgiven, but it won’t be totally forgotten.
- Let others know they can count on your word.
- Don’t tell people what they want to hear if it isn’t genuine.
- Maintain confidence.
- Keep a comfort zone and the team will know they can feel safe coming to you.
- Lead by example sounds cliché, but it has merit.
- Be part of the team.
- No job should ever be beneath you. Be prepared to “get in the trenches” and work side by side with your team.
- Remember what your first day on the job was like.
- Leaders eat last.
- Delegating will empower the team. It may surprise you the talents and contributions people have.
- Practice synergy.
- Readily take the blame when something goes wrong … and give the credit to the team/individual when things go right.
A wise boss told me years ago to relay this statement to your management, peers, and subordinates, “I’m firm, I’m fair, and I care.” …. and then live it every day.