Maryland’s 911 system is overdue for an upgrade, state lawmaker says

WASHINGTON — It is time for Maryland’s “Next Gen 911,” according to state Sen. Cheryl Kagan.

Kagan’s submitted bills would tackle a number of the current system’s shortcomings, including allowing users to text their information to 911 versus having to talk to a call operator.

Kagan said in cases such as home invasions, a homeowner would want to avoid being overheard by an intruder. With the next generation of 911, Kagan said a victim would be able to text their request for help to an emergency call center.

“It will make for a much more effective and efficient process of getting help,” Kagan said.

She also said the overhaul of the state’s 911 system has as its goal improving geolocation. “People are always asking me, why is it that the pizza guy can get to me and 911 can’t?” said Kagan.

Along with texting their information, Kagan said that under the proposed upgraded system, 911 users would be able to send photos and video of what they’re seeing or experiencing to emergency call center staff.

But that has generated several concerns, including maintaining privacy of people whose images are transmitted and the impact on call operators, who currently hear what’s going on as people are in dire need of help.

One element of the legislation being championed by Kagan includes providing for privacy by designating that a “custodian of records” could deny inspection of any footage, subject to some exceptions.

Steve Souder, vice chair of the Commission to Advance Next Generation 911 Across Maryland, said the concern about the impact on call takers of receiving visuals from the scene of an emergency is real.

Souder led the emergency call centers in Fairfax and Montgomery counties for decades, and he said, “Call taker is probably the most stressful position in the entire 911 and public safety continuum.”

Souder, a nationally-recognized expert in 911 operations, added, “We are very sensitive to the potential impact of the call taker seeing what in the past they were only able to hear.”

Another element of a bill being heard before lawmakers next week deals with the costs associated with the upgrades.

“Every state in the union, with the exception of Maryland, assesses their fee on a per-device formula. In Maryland, we are still wedded to a per-bill formula,” Souder said.

Kagan said the bottom line is that the current 911 system must be made more reliable and more resilient. She said the legislation submitted this year is aimed at doing just that.

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