When a glitch in phone company systems left Baltimore without 911 service for over an hour last week, The Baltimore Sun wanted to know how often such outages occur.
Public records made it clear that the outage wasn't unique, but much of the information about problems with 911 is confidential, making it difficult to figure out just how often the emergency phone system is out of action. The secrecy highlights the 911 system's strange role as a critical lifeline to police and fire departments, but one that is almost entirely run by private companies.
The Federal Communications Commission requires phone companies to submit reports about outages that affect a large number of people or that last for a long time. But the agency doesn't release the reports because they could contain proprietary information about how the companies set up their networks. When the Government Accountability Office investigated outages in 2015, it didn't even bother to look at the reports. Investigators wrote in a footnote that they saw no point in reviewing data they couldn't talk about publicly.
In 2014, technology website The Verge was able to use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain complaints consumers filed with the FCC about problems they claimed to have had reaching 911, such as busy signals or recorded messages. But the records did not indicate whether the complaints were verified or how the agency responded.
David Simpson, head of the FCC's public safety office, said in a statement that the agency has worked to identify trends in outages and propose new rules to address any deficiencies it finds.
"Preserving reliable 911 service is of the highest priority to the FCC," he said.
Even run-of-the-mill information about how many people are using 911 is closely guarded. State Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan has been battling to make sure that when people call 911 they can get through. Her efforts began after a constituent of hers was struck by lightning and no one could reach emergency services.
"There's no accountability," Kagan said. "There's no public dialogue."
The Montgomery County Democrat has proposed legislation to give more state and local officials access to 911 data and to require more regular surveys of usage levels to make sure that counties are providing their systems with adequate resources.
"Without the data you're in the dark," Kagan said. "You have no idea how many busy signals people are getting."
Yet the bill also would prevent certain records from being releasable under the Maryland Public Information Act. Kagan said that protection is necessary to stop the information being used to interfere with the 911 system or cause harm to the public.
"When it comes down to public safety and in this era of increased awareness of terrorism, transparency has to take a bit of a back seat," she said.