Maryland State Senator Cheryl C. Kagan: A 911der Woman’s tireless advocacy for emergency services

April 2023

911der Women

Not all 911der Women wear headsets – and Maryland State Senator Cheryl C. Kagan is definitely a 911der Woman. She recently received the Government Leader award from the NG911 Institute – for the second time. It’s no wonder – she’s a tireless advocate for 911 issues – and has really learned how to move 911 forward in Maryland. Here’s her 911 story.

On July 27, 2010, my friend and Rockville activist Carl Henn was struck by lightning in a freak thunderstorm. He died after 9-1-1 was overloaded with other calls. Like most people, I had always assumed that 9-1-1 was always available. Dial three digits. Get a trained and compassionate person to answer. Get help. I learned that there were at least three instances when this didn’t happen to be true, and people died in my district.

When I returned to elective office after a 12-year hiatus, I dedicated myself to learning about Maryland’s emergency services systems in Carl’s memory. I met with veteran leaders from the 9-1-1 community who tried to patiently teach me… with an alphabet soup of acronyms. (It’s bewildering and off-putting to a newbie when insiders reference a PSAP, EsiNet, TDoS/DDoS, GIS, “Next Gen,” CISM, or CAD.) I started touring some of our 9-1-1 centers, seeking to learn from those taking emergency calls every day. I developed huge admiration for the career we renamed in law, our “9-1-1 Specialists.”

On advice of a wise Senate colleague, I drafted a bill to create in law a statewide NG911 Commission. We appointed a diverse, collaborative, and effective group of experts. With the credibility stemming from our members, the consensus recommendations were well-received by legislators. We appointed PSAP directors, telecommunications pros, finance directors, cybersecurity professionals, advocates for our counties and those with disabilities, and more. We were sure to include 2 Senators (1 Democrat & 1 Republican) and 2 members of the House of Delegates (1 Democrat & 1 Republican).

And then it began!

I somewhat reluctantly accepted the nomination to chair the Commission. If they wanted me to be in charge… prepare to get it done!

We created four subcommittees to get focused efficiency on the issues we wanted to address. Funding & Structure; Staffing & Training; Cyber & Technology; and Oversight & Accountability each met (by phone) on a weekly basis. Then we had regular meetings with the subcommittee chairs and Commission leadership. After we reached consensus, we crafted an agenda and convened the full Commission in person (other than during COVID) in our State Capitol complex. Our meetings were live-streamed in order to engage the media and educate the general public (in plain English!) as well as my fellow legislators about the urgency of our work.

Each year, I sponsored an “omnibus” bill with multiple components that were consensus issues. I also sponsored other legislation that would likely be considered by various other committees. The reputation and diversity of the Commissioners helped pass important bills each year… and without too many amendments.

Adjusting the funding structure of our 9-1-1 fee was vital. The $1 charged on each phone bill covered an average of just 37.5% of the cost of our county PSAP’s. How does one get bipartisan support for increasing a fee? By justifying it with data; restricting funds for ONLY 9-1-1 uses; and making it pretty modest and therefore politically acceptable. Included in the 9-1-1 fee “adjustment”:

  • Increasing the State portion of the fee from 25¢ to 50¢ to provide much-needed funds for ongoing capital costs;

  • Authorizing counties to increase the local portion of the 9-1-1 fee (up to an additional $.75) if there were ongoing budget shortfalls;

  • Closing the loophole (per device and not per bill) in how 9-1-1 fees were assessed to reflect an evolution in how we pay for telephone service; and

  • Expanding the categories of goods and services that the State entity could reimburse in order to lighten the fiscal load on our 24 counties.

Addressing recruitment, training, and retention was another top priority. As I visited PSAP’s around the State (I’m up to 20 of the 24 as I type this), I made a point to meet and thank our 9-1-1 Specialists– the courageous women and men under the headset who save lives and property every day. Too often, these dedicated FIRST First Responders are invisible and unappreciated. They need and deserve better pay, better benefits, and more respect! We made sure to legislate reclassification; direct access to mental health care; enhanced training programs; tuition reimbursement; and county authority to offer property tax credits. The vacancy rate in our PSAP’s before COVID was 13% and is surely much higher now. Forced overtime and shifts that don’t work for family time is yet another disincentive to remain in this unthinkably stressful job.

Cybersecurity. Geographic Information System. Diversity and implicit bias training. Text to 9-1-1. Audits of telecommunications companies by our State Comptroller. Kari’s Law. Outage notification. Swatting. Remote call-taking. Swatting. TDoS/DDoS. All of these have been my focus, and therefore my legislative colleagues’ focus. We have made SO much progress and have helped to put Maryland at the forefront of the transition to Next Generation 9-1-1. I remain eager to offer assistance to other state legislators of either party who are willing to invest the time and effort to work on these critically important policy issues. As I always say, “When 9-1-1 fails, people die!”

Written by: Senator Cheryl C. Kagan