Disconnected from 911: I-Team explores what’s going wrong, challenges in Maryland

When an Anne Arundel County mother’s child was in distress, she called 911. Most times, the call is answered. But not this time.

The 11 News I-Team looks into what went wrong.

Put on hold and disconnected from 911

Vivian Neumann, 4, is in remission from a form of cancer called neuroblastoma. On Feb. 16, the day after she returned home from a clinical trial in New York, she began having a seizure.

“I was sitting with her, she started turning blue and choking and then seizing,” said Vivian’s mother, Kirsten Neumann.

Terrified for her child’s life, Kirsten Neuman called 911.

“(I) was greeted with the message, ‘We’re sorry, we’re experiencing high call volume, please hold.’ They put me on elevator music and then it disconnected,” Kirsten Neumann said.

Kirsten Neumann said she called 911 again and the same thing happened.

Eventually, the Neumanns’ nanny got through and an ambulance arrived 20 minutes after Kirsten Neumann’s first call to 911.

“That is forever when your child is blue and seizing in your hands,” Kirsten Neumann said.

Why did this happen?

The system was overwhelmed, which has become a growing problem with callers reporting accidents from their cellphones, officials told the I-Team.

“Unfortunately, at the time the mother called in, we experienced an accident at (Maryland Route) 295 and Route 32. It was a serious accident and all of our call-takers, including some of our supervisors that assisted for service unrelated but also related to that accident, (were assisting other calls), so when she called in, she was put on hold for a period of time,” Capt. Joseph Jordan, commander of Anne Arundel County’s 911 operations told the I-Team.

That’s what happened to Kirsten Neumann, but there are also other issues Anne Arundel County is facing. Unlike most other Maryland counties, Anne Arundel County does not have a consolidated 911 center. There are two separate locations for police and fire. All calls first come to police in their building. If fire or ambulance is needed, the call is then transferred to the fire department in another building. It’s an extra step that takes up precious time.

Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said there is a plan for a new, consolidated 911 center.

“Everything we do in public safety is a life-and-death matter,” Pittman said. “We have in our capital budget that’s before the (County) Council now a $45 million joint 911 center, and hopefully, we’re improving service to the residents.”

Pittman said he expects the plan to pass and construction to begin in 2024.

Officials work on hiring more staff and providing them resources

The county is also investing in more 911 staff. There are currently 34 job openings, which represents about a 50% deficit. So, the county has reclassified the 911 positions to a higher pay grade and is offering a $5,000 signing bonus to attract and retain these crucial workers.

“I call them the ‘first’ first responders, and they’re so much more essential than most people believe, and people don’t recognize how important their role is,” Pittman said.

Montgomery County Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-District 17, chairs the Commission to Advance Next Generation 911 Across Maryland. She said 911 center workers should be called specialists, not operators. She said they should be considered first responders and treated as such.

“We need to care for them, we need to pay them enough, we need to give them mental health services,” Kagan said.

Kagan said it’s a passionate topic for her as three people in her district have died because 911 failed.

“When 911 fails, people die, all with different explanations, but fundamentally, we don’t invest enough in our emergency services,” Kagan said.

Back in Anne Arundel County, Vivian Neumann is doing well. She hasn’t had any more seizures, but her mother can’t stop thinking about what could have happened to her child that day in February. It both haunts her and drives her.

“You have no idea how hard it is to watch your child dying in your arms and no one is coming to help you. It’s terrifying,” Kirsten Neumann said. “I don’t want another family to go through that again. So, I’m going to keep fighting until we can get this fixed.”