ANNAPOLIS, Md. —Alarms are sounding in Annapolis regarding Maryland’s antiquated 911 system.
The system is 50 years old, and upgrading it could cost as much as $50 million, but the fix would allow callers to send photos, videos and text to 911 operators.
Like landline phones, Maryland’s current 911 system is based on 1970s technology. A bill package under consideration in the General Assembly would enable jurisdictions across the state to upgrade systems all at the same time.
“If you call today, it would be the same as calling back in 1973,” said Steve Souder, a 911 expert in Fairfax County, Virginia.
The outdated technology gets overloaded, and it can’t reliably locate the emergency. Callers can only communicate by talking directly to the dispatcher.
“This (cellphones) is what it’s all about. This is the problem that we are working to overcome. We need to find individuals; they are on the move. They want to use this device and communicate with 911 with this device,” said Richard Brooks, chief of the Cecil County Department of Emergency Services.
“The device I have in my hand, I can press a button and I can hail a car, I can order a pizza. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I don’t have to tell them where I am. Not so with 911,” said Kevin Kinnally, a policy associate with the Maryland Association of Counties.
A commission studying 911 systems across the state issued a 65-page report in December with 23 recommendations.
“Once we update our technology, in addition to making phone calls, people will be able to send photos, videos and text to 911,” said Montgomery County Sen. Cheryl Kagan, chair of the NextGen 911 Commission.
The next generation 911 systems are broadband and are cyber secure. Upgrades would be tailored to each locality, and the systems will be interconnected to a neighboring jurisdiction, so fewer calls would have to be rerouted.
Staffing levels also need to be addressed as there is currently a 13 percent vacancy rate.
“(There’s) no time to spare,” said Bill Ferretti, communications director for Montgomery County police.
Paying for the new system is a work in progress. Recommendations include increasing the 911 surcharge fee per phone and seek an increase in state funding.