For Maryland Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D), Carl Henn’s tragic death was a call to action.
A local activist and politician, Henn died after being struck by lightning in 2010 after a freak thunderstorm interrupted a celebration in a park. “By the time they came out and found him prostrate, they tried calling 911 from their cellphones and even landlines,” says Kagan, who considered Henn a friend. “The lines were all busy.”
Another attendee ultimately took Henn to the hospital, but he didn’t survive his injuries. “Every minute counts,” Kagan says. “Delays aren’t helpful when you’re trying to save a life in a critical situation like that.”
Delays aren’t helpful when you’re trying to save a life. —Maryland Sen. Cheryl Kagan
Henn’s story is not unique. “Three people have died in my district [District 17] when 911 has failed,” Kagan says. “I have worked to upgrade our laws and processes in a way that I hope that no other family will have a tragic and avoidable loss like Carl’s.”
That effort includes serving as chair of the bipartisan Commission to Advance Next Generation 911 Across Maryland, which was established in 2018 to improve public emergency communications services in an increasingly wireless and mobile world. The commission is composed of two senators and two delegates, along with experts and stakeholders. Next Generation 911, or NG911, is technology that originated at the National Emergency Number Association in the early 2000s. It modernizes 911 infrastructure to accommodate digital and mobile devices, which most callers now use; lets callers to share videos, images and texts with 911 call centers; and enhances the centers’ ability to communicate with one another.
The Maryland NG911 commission’s fourth and final annual report, released in December last year, has 24 recommendations, “many of which will be incorporated into legislation,” Kagan says.
Building on Previous Work
It’s the culmination of four years of work and builds on previous legislation and recommendations for policy changes. The Maryland General Assembly has passed nine bills related to 911 since 2018, and Kagan is sponsoring six more during the 2022 session.
“In 2019, my bill—called Carl Henn’s Law—was enacted,” Kagan says. “That was an omnibus that addressed a number of issues: We did funding, we did cybersecurity, we did training. That was really important foundational legislation, and each year, we’ve had other bills and enacted more laws.”
To fund the changes, the commission successfully pushed for increased fees relating to the number of phones, not phone bills. “Demand [for 911 services] was skyrocketing and revenues were flat or diminishing,” Kagan says. “A lot of counties are still falling short, and they should not have to pay for 911 with money that would have gone to schools, roads or health care.”
Steve Souder, the commission’s vice chair and a registered independent, worked in emergency and 911 services for more than 50 years in Virginia before retiring in Maryland in 2016. “There’s never been a 911 commission quite like this,” he says. “If you have a champion—and we’re blessed to have a champion, and it’s Sen. Kagan—all kinds of things can happen, and did happen, because it was bipartisan.”
Souder says the commission’s makeup of officials from both parties as well as the private and public sectors allowed for a high-level rethinking of processes and policies. “There’s literally no facet of the whole 911 ecosystem that we didn’t look at and, in many cases, touch in some positive way,” he says. “I think we walk away from it saying, ‘We did pretty doggone good here, and we’re leaving it better than we found it.’ ”
Kagan’s mantra for the commission—“All boats rise together”—reflects the bipartisan approach. “We heard zero complaints from legislators from either party,” she says. “If grandma calls 911, you want her to get through, and you want her to have trained personnel picking up the phone.”
‘Not a Partisan Issue’
A Republican member of the NG911 commission, District 5 Del. Susan Krebs, says there isn't room for politics in emergency communications. “It was an honor to work on this commission with the experts,” she says. “911 is not a partisan issue.”
Krebs says she's pleased the final recommendations leave control of 911 services largely in the hands of local officials. “It’s similar needs yet different needs, and we needed to make sure that we kept that in mind and had all seats at the table,” Krebs says. “They really are the ones where the rubber meets the road who know what their needs are.”
Krebs terms the final bills coming up in 2022 the “capstone” of the commission’s work. “There’s a road map for the future for 911,” she adds. “I could stand in front of anybody, Republican, Democrat, whatever, and say, ‘Our process was a good one and what we put out was a good product for us.’ ”
I could stand in front of anybody, Republican, Democrat, whatever, and say, ‘Our process was a good one and what we put out was a good product for us.’ —Maryland Del. Susan Krebs
Among other policy and legislative changes were improved cybersecurity and personnel training along with upgrades that allow callers to text, rather than call, 911 and send video and photos. In addition, the Maryland 911 Board was restructured and moved from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to the Department of Emergency Management.
Getting 911 up to date with modern technology has been front and center. “About 80% or more (calls) are from wireless phones now,” Kagan says. “If you call from your landline, it shows up as 123 Main St., but if you call from your cellphone, it identifies the closest cell tower—and that could be a quarter mile away or more.”
The commission’s work has also catalyzed more support for Maryland’s 911 specialists. “We renamed their title in law: They are not call takers, they are not dispatchers; they are 911 specialists,” Kagan says. “They are the first first responders. If they’re not doing their job well, there’s no chance police/fire/paramedics can do their job well.”
Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer.
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