911 texting a good start, but Md. system needs more to protect lives

Every child knows what to do in an emergency: They dial 911. But when 911 fails, people die.

On April 19, 2006, Kaafee Billah called 911 from his office at MedImmune/AstraZeneca in Gaithersburg. He thought he might be having a heart attack. Emergency responders searched from office to office, looking for him. Ten hours later, he was found dead in a different company building that shared the same “trunk” phone line.

On July 25, 2010, Rockville resident and environmental activist Carl Henn was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm; 911 was overwhelmed by calls, so his friends’ efforts were met with busy signals. Carl later died.

On July 10, 2016, Marlon Somarriba was having trouble breathing. Montgomery County’s 911 Center was experiencing a brief outage. No calls could be answered, so no emergency assistance could be dispatched. Marlon died.

The common thread in all these tragedies was the failure of 911 to get help to where it was needed. Next Generation 911 is being implemented around the country and will address some of these shortcomings. It will change how we communicate and help those in crisis. We need to bring it to Maryland.

In 23 of our 24 local jurisdictions, if there’s a bad guy in your house, you need to dial 911 and actually talk to a call-taker. Only in Frederick County can residents currently text to 911, though that’s expected to soon change. The state Board of Public Works on Wednesday voted to approve a $2.4 million contract that will allow 911 texting in other counties as early as May. This is a good start, but it does not eliminate the need for NextGen911, which will also allow you to send photos and videos and allow our emergency personnel to more accurately locate you. This will give our first responders situational awareness before they arrive, improving their response and safety.

While this technology will offer clear benefits, it could be abused with sinister intent. Imagine a criminal sending a video of a murder he is committing to taunt police; or the X-rated videos or pranks that could be sent. We’ll need to focus on cybersecurity.

Another challenge will be regulating exactly what personal information from emergency calls should be disclosed to the public. The Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) is an important tool that ensures government accountability through transparency. There is, however, a need to balance that transparency with reasonable privacy. We wouldn’t want to see gory or gruesome acts on our evening news. Innocent children caught in the background of a crime video shouldn’t have their faces displayed. And our personal medical information should be kept private when it’s not a part of a criminal investigation.

We will also need extra support, training and counseling for the call-takers, who, if you think about it, are our first first responders. Their jobs are stressful, and they are often underappreciated. It takes eight to 12 months to train a call-taker. They are underpaid and have few of the benefits of other first responders. Reclassifying their role to allow local governments to offer better pensions, tax benefits and death benefits could help address our recruiting and retention challenges in these critical jobs.

Once call-takers have information about your emergency, they dispatch police, fire or rescue to help. People often wonder how a pizza delivery driver can pinpoint their location, while the emergency responder has trouble. Some of that is due to the state of our GIS, or Geographic Information System. While our landline telephones are easily traced, cell phones are much less precise. The cell tower is one data point, but that doesn’t help find you in an office complex, apartment building or hotel room. Investments to upgrade the GIS data will help emergency responders get to you faster.

Clearly, enhancing our hardware and software and increasing responsiveness through well-qualified and well-trained professional staff come with a cost. Funding for 911 services has not kept pace with technology. Senate Bill 1051 proposes a new method for calculating the 911 fee and other changes that would raise needed funds now, even before we transition to NextGen911.

911 is a phone number that too many people take for granted. It is arguably the very most important service that our local governments provide. We all assume that when we call, someone will answer and help will be on the way. Unfortunately, that’s not certain. We have already seen that in extreme weather, traffic pile-ups or (God forbid) another school shooting, our current system is inadequate. As I say all too regularly, “when 911 fails, people die.” I hope that policymakers of both parties will step up — even in an election year — to address the urgent need to protect Marylanders.

Cheryl C. Kagan (cheryl.kagan@senate.state.md.us) is a Democrat and the Senator for Gaithersburg and Rockville (District 17); she is sponsoring five bills to address these public safety issues this legislative session.

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