Baltimore County will receive $4 million from the state to upgrade its 911 equipment, part of a national effort to allow operators to receive texts, photos and videos and to provide better locational data that can improve emergency responses by ensuring that callers are directed to the right dispatchers.
Jurisdictions across the state are getting the hardware needed to implement Next Generation 911, though officials caution it will be at least a few years before texting and other features are fully implemented for Maryland 911 operations.
Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Carroll counties have already received money for new 911 phones; Baltimore city's phone upgrade is in the works.
The Baltimore County Council formally approved acceptance of the state grant Tuesday. The money comes from the state's Emergency Number Systems Board, which collects a fee from phone users.
Local jurisdictions have had problems with 911 service in recent years, including callers — who increasingly use cellphones — being sent to the wrong dispatch center. That has been a particular issue for incidents that occur near jurisdictional lines, such as in Baltimore near city and county lines.
The new text and video capabilities also can be important in crisis situations, said Rob Stradling, director of information technology for Baltimore County government. He said some callers might not be able to talk, pointing to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, where people were trapped and hiding from a gunman.
Under Next Generation 911, people would be able to text 911 without alerting assailants or intruders.
Call-takers at Baltimore County's 911 center in Towson answered nearly 863,000 calls last year. About three-quarters were 911 calls, with the rest coming in on a non-emergency number.
Using the state grant money, the county's phone system upgrade is set to be completed by September 2017.
Officials say there are additional steps that need to happen before the county — or any other 911 center in Maryland — is able to receive and respond to texts, pictures and videos sent from cellphones. Once phones are upgraded, software is needed to handle those types of communications. In the next few years, the county will make those upgrades as well.
Cellphone companies also have to do work on their end to be able to deliver the text messages from the cellular systems into the 911 systems. "Right now, it's not there yet," Stradling said.
And guidelines need to be developed for how 911 call-takers respond to texts, photos and videos.
"What do you do with it after you get it? How do you pop the information on the screen for the call-taker to do anything with it?" Stradling said.
Finally, he said, the public will need to be educated in how Next Generation 911 works, and how to make use of its new tools.
Stradling estimated it could be at least two years before Next Generation 911 is in place.
Scott Roper, director of the state's Emergency Systems Numbers Board, which oversees 911 systems, said Next Generation 911 will be a reality "in the not-too-distant future."
The phone system upgrades are funded by the state's 911 Trust Fund, administered by the Emergency Systems Numbers Board. For people with monthly phone bills, $1 is collected on each bill for the fund. Users of prepaid phones pay 60 cents into the fund when they buy their phones.
Seventy-five percent of the money in the 911 Trust Fund goes to local governments to support operating costs of 911 centers, and 25 percent is for upgrades such as the new phones.
Each 911 center in the state replaces its phones about every five years. During the most recent cycle, several purchased Next Generation-capable phones, Roper said.
Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties all received funding for system upgrades in 2013. Carroll received money for an upgrade in 2012, and for further improvements in 2015.
In addition to the $4 million for phone equipment, Baltimore County is receiving about $42,000 to replace chairs at the main 911 center in Towson and the backup center in Hunt Valley.
Baltimore City plans to upgrade its 911 system soon, and is currently securing a vendor for the project, which also will be funded by the state through the 911 Trust Fund. The city's last upgrade was for about $2.1 million in 2011. There's no estimate yet how much the city's next system update will cost.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.