A conversation with Roxy VanGundy
“If you could completely solve one issue in public safety, what would it be?”
That’s the last question I asked Roxy Van Gundy when I interviewed her just a few short weeks ago. For anyone that knows Roxy, her answer won’t be very surprising:
“The morale issue…My dream job would be to buy a sparkly bus, drive to every PSAP in the country, love on them for a couple days, and move on to the next one.”
In case you don’t know Roxy, she’s the Director of the Lyon County (KS) Emergency Communications Center, a dispatcher with nearly two decades of experience on the headset, and a native Kansan with a passion for helping others. She also serves as a Co-Chair for the NENA Wellness Committee and President of the Kansas NENA Chapter.
Well before Roxy reached these positions of leadership, she dispatched in Kansas and Alaska. Of her time in Alaska, where she worked for the Alaska State Troopers, she says:
“It’s completely different dispatching than it is in the [contiguous] states. In Alaska, troopers respond to a lot of different calls…they work in specific villages, there’s a whole set of troopers who only work with animals, so you learn about animal law and all sorts of things that you’d never want to know about animals.”
These unique experiences aside, her time in Alaska was incredibly informative:
“My time there taught me how to be a better dispatcher and how to be more independent. We didn’t have any technology there and that’s part of my motivation for wanting technology here - I’ve lived in a place where you had nothing and you had to figure it out.”
Early in her tenure in Alaska, Roxy received a call that changed her perspective, her life, and her view on technology forever.
The call that changed it all
Author’s Note: the following contains a potentially triggering description of a violent crime. Please proceed with caution, skip to the next section if necessary, and visit NENA’s Mental Health Resources Section if you are in need of help.
It can be difficult to find words to describe the worst moment of someone’s life. It’s even more difficult to be the person that listens to the worst moments of people’s lives over and over, day in, and day out. Yet, that is the life of a 911 dispatcher.
Eight months into her time in Alaska, Roxy received a call on her center’s 800 number from a police chief that ran a small department in southeast Alaska. At the time, not every part of Alaska had a 911 service. Instead, they had a specifically designated, unique 800 number that people can call for emergency service.
The policeman that called Roxy’s 800 number had recently moved into the town he was now serving and was not familiar with the number for his new hometown. He had finished a shift and returned home to clean up when he heard his radio get loud with screaming from two of his officers.
As quickly as he could, he cleaned up, ran downtown, and found that both of his officers had been shot and killed. Not knowing his new 800 number, he called the only number he knew and reached Roxy, towns away from where he was. Here is the story of the call in Roxy’s own words:
“When he first called me, all I could hear was, ‘They’re all dead, they’re all dead, they’re all dead,’ and the phone was cutting in and out and there was a lot of cell phone problems because he lived in an area that was really remote. I couldn’t figure out who he was and what words he was saying to describe the town.
We went on for several minutes trying to figure out where he was calling from....when i finally figured out what he was saying, I didn’t know where that city was and I had nothing in front of me technology-wise to figure that out. He kept screaming, ‘Oh my god there’s so much blood, please send someone to help me.’ I had to get out 25 year old map books to figure out where this town was. To make things worse, I didn’t have anyone in the center that was helping me because they didn’t care to help me.
I’m trying to figure out where this man is and how I can help him and he’s having an absolute meltdown, as he should’ve been, and…I didn’t have any way to help and I didn’t know where he was, I didn’t know where these people were, and then the phone goes dead. By that time, my Sgt. had come in and we were working through where he was and where the best people were to go and help them.
The story that occurred was: there was one officer on duty in this small town, his mom was there from the states riding along, they were parked along the main street doing paperwork. The other officer that was on duty, who was very good friends with the Sgt. on the street, came rolling through town with his family. He had his wife and three small children in the car at the time, riding along. They wanted to stop and say hi to the other officer and his Mom. The officer gets out and goes up to the car to say hi. What they didn’t realize was, across the street there was a man with mental health issues who they’d dealt with countless times before. He was in crisis, he had a rifle and shot them both in front of their families…and I heard the entire aftermath of that event.”
Roxy tells me that even though this call was over a decade ago, she lives with it every day. She tells me that she hopes that by continuing to share the story, she can do two things:
- Inspires others to share their own traumatic stories, rather than keeping them inside;
- Keep the memory of the fallen officers alive.
She also views the story as a story of “what could have been” and asks herself if she could’ve saved the officers. She believes, at least in part, that those questions are answered by technology.
Technology and the future of 911
It takes a lot of mental strength and resilience to look back on a traumatizing call and use it as a motivational catalyst. Usually it might take years of added context or re-evaluation of the same event over and over. For Roxy, while it certainly took a little of both of the aforementioned, she took an approach that has helped form her mission, her beliefs, and her goals for the future of 911:
“For a really long time, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I could’ve helped them,’ or, ‘If I could’ve gotten them help faster,’ or if I’d realized that there was a wildlife trooper there that I could’ve called that could’ve helped. I know that they probably would’ve died anyway but I think your natural inclination as a dispatcher is to think that its your fault and that you should’ve done something to make it a better outcome. That’s why I’m so passionate about technology. I always think…maybe had I not spent 15 minutes looking through map books trying to figure out where this town was, maybe it could’ve made a difference. I think that that’s something that I always think about when I look at new technology or new tools in the center: ‘is this gonna give my people another way to not feel the way that I felt?’”
Roxy has lived out these words as the Director of Lyon County ECC. She has consistently sought out new technology as a way to “meet people where they are” and make it more equitable for everyone to call 911:
“I think that’s where we’re lacking in 911: we’re always reactive and not proactive. For example, people want to report things on Facebook…people want to go where they feel comfortable - and that’s not always talking on the phone. Understanding that we have a young population here [in Lyon County] and have the ability to text with them is very important.”
In their adoption of Prepared Live, Roxy believes she’s found a solution that fits her community:
“We’re a college town and we had a block party this past Monday and every single person that we told that we could livestream with them on 911 they were like, ‘Whoa you can do that here?’ I want to make 911 not just more equitable but I want to meet people where they’re more comfortable and with young kids, that’s where it is.
I really want them to feel like they can call and report whatever they need to report and that it’s going to be a good experience for them. I want my dispatchers to be able to have a window to the outside so they’re not just building up the scene in their head; instead they can actually see what’s happening. My hope is that Prepared Live can give them a little more closure when they know what actually happened.”
Evolving Mental Health and Wellness in 911: Technology and Support
Closure, sometimes an elusive concept for the 911 dispatching community, could potentially arrive more often with technology like Prepared Live.
Dr. Michelle Lilly, a licensed mental health clinician and expert in the field of mental health and 911, authored a paper titled, “How NG911 Technology May Positively Impact Mental Health in 9-1-1: Evidence from Research and Theory on PTSD.”
In the paper, Dr. Lilly concludes that, “While integration of NG911 technology, particularly video, has left many with reasonable concerns regarding the psychological impact of an already taxed workforce, there is evidence to believe that there may be numerous positive impacts that can result from access to video.” Amongst these positive impacts, Dr. Lilly notes, “Access to live video may reduce guilt and self-blame, as the telecommunicator’s access to greater information may enhance the likelihood of a successful resolution.”
As a Co-Chair for the NENA Wellness Committee, this issue is at the forefront of Roxy’s mind:
“I was honored to be named co-chair of the NENA Mental Health and Wellness Committee. I want people to understand that there’s someone that gets what they’re going through. If I can get on a national committee and say, ‘Hey, let’s think about the one and two seat centers when we’re making this fancy, accredited document about how to protect wellbeing and mental health,’ that’s what I want to do.
I think that I’ve gone through a lot of really bad things because I wasn’t taught very well about how to process any of it. I wasn’t shown anyone who was really free with their emotions, so I feel like it’s important to get involved in those kind of committees and push that work forward because there’s so many people that are suffering that don’t know, that still don’t believe they can reach out and get help.”
It all begins, in Roxy’s mind, with the simple idea of providing better support for the individual and the collective:
“I think that I’ve tried to evolve my thinking into how I can help here and how can I help everywhere. I always ask, ‘Is there something we’re doing here or is there something that I learn about that can help more than just my people?’ I think we’re seeing more and more people trying to help everyone in the industry, not just sticking in their silo and their center.
Of any other profession, there’s so many dispatchers that aren’t being supported and they should be. 911 is very singular and we tend to stick to ourselves and, as a result, there’s so many people out there who are doing this incredibly important job and they have no one to turn to for support or encouragement.
Even if I don’t have anything thoughtful to say, if I can just be someone’s cheerleader and say, ‘I get it, I’ve been where you are,’ that’s what I want to do, that’s my goal. It’s not so much about changing processes or having some wild great idea to change 911 - I just think people need to be more supportive.
If I can be that person for a few other people, that’s what I want to do.”
Lyon County Emergency Communications, led by Roxy, is a valued partner of Prepared. They continue to find new ways to use Prepared Live to make their community safer. We are honored to see them use our software for good.
To learn more about how your center can add this technology, please book a demo with a member of our team.