ANNAPOLIS, Maryland – Legislation that would increase state and local 9-1-1 fees in Maryland — part of the Next Generation 9-1-1 initiative that would allow faster communication with emergency responders via text, photos and videos — passed both the House and Senate this week.
Senate bill 339, cross-filed with House bill 397, would address cybersecurity and technology updates, provide oversight and accountability, fill staffing shortages and establish a new funding method for the new 9-1-1 system.
The legislation — Carl Henn’s Law — was named after a Rockville, Maryland, native who was struck by lightning in 2010 during a sudden storm. Emergency operators were not immediately reachable at the time as the 9-1-1 system received an overwhelming volume of calls, according to written testimony from Carl’s wife, Carol Henn. Carl Henn suffered significant brain stem damage and died.
“I have had three people die in my district when 9-1-1 has failed,” bill sponsor Sen. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, said during a hearing on Feb. 26. “That has inspired my efforts on this issue.”
In November, the Maryland Commission to Advance Next Generation 9-1-1 Across Maryland released a 65-page report that included recommendations to improve the new, modern 9-1-1 network and system.
In 2013, Frederick County became one of the first jurisdictions in the country to deliver text messages to 9-1-1 operators as part of a pilot program, according to Director of Emergency Management for Frederick County Jack Markey.
Maryland is expected to transition current systems in all 24 of the state’s jurisdictions to Next Generation 9-1-1 systems — which would allow emergency responders to locate callers more quickly — by 2021, according to the commission report.
“There were over five million calls that were placed last year to 9-1-1 centers around the state,” Kagan said during the hearing. “And we are answering them and responding with technology that is 51 years old.”
The legislation addresses recommendations made in the report, including expanding the responsibilities of the Emergency Number Systems Board, which governs jurisdictions’ 9-1-1 systems.
The report also calls for enhanced cybersecurity at 9-1-1 call centers.
Sean Scott, chief technology officer of SecuLore Solutions, urged lawmakers to consider the importance of enhancing cybersecurity in order to better protect the new, high-tech 9-1-1 systems.
The new systems, in order to connect with callers via cell phone calls and text messages, will be linked to the internet, potentially exposing them to hacking or other threats.
Earlier this year, the Salisbury, Maryland, Police Department fell victim to a ransomware attack that interrupted their computer systems, including its record management systems, as well as email and network servers, according to Capt. Rich Kaiser.
“We have seen 337 successful attacks (on public safety networks) across 49 states and DC in the past 24 months, this represents a 186 percent increase over the previous 24 months,” Scott stated in his testimony in favor of the bill. “It is estimated that over $2 billion in ransom was paid in 2017 and that number has dramatically increased during 2018.”
Funding for the Next Generation 9-1-1 communication system will come from an increase in state and local 9-1-1 fees, part of a new Maryland funding model proposed under the bill.
The bill will allow for an increase in 9-1-1 communication fees because, under the current model, revenue does not cover the expenses of the system, according to the report.
“The current fee structure is grossly insufficient to support not only our current 9-1-1 system, let alone the update to Next Generation 9-1-1 technology,” bill sponsor Delegate Susan Krebs, R-Carroll, said during the House hearing. “So, we need to make sure this fee is sufficient to cover the costs.”
In 2017, the 9-1-1 statewide revenue for that year was just over $41 million, while statewide 9-1-1 expenses were a little more than $103 million, according to the commission report, falling about 60 percent short.
Under current law, all subscribers to 9-1-1 services pay a monthly $1 fee per phone bill, however, Kagan emphasized how the change in everyday communication has affected the shortfall between 9-1-1 revenue and expenses.
As the popularity of landlines has decreased in recent years, and as more people are using cell phones — especially on family plans where the $1 fee per phone bill is covered for multiple people — the revenue continues to stay below expenses, according to Kagan.
Kagan emphasized that under the new bill, any cell phone covered by a family plan will have to pay the 9-1-1 fee.
The divide between revenue and expenses will be even greater during the transition to Next Generation 9-1-1, as the current $1 fee will not be enough to support both systems for a time during the adjustment period, according to the report.
“So demand is increasing dramatically and funding is flat or heading downward,” Kagan said.
Under the current model, the $1 fee is divided into two parts: $0.25 goes to the Emergency Number System Board, which funds capital expenditures, and the $0.75 goes to the local counties to help fund maintenance costs.
The new legislation would increase the $1 fee to $1.25 by doubling the state fee from $0.25 per month to $0.50 per month.
Under the new law, if a county’s local 9-1-1 fee revenues do not cover the operating costs for its 9-1-1 system in a fiscal year, then the county has the option to impose an additional charge of up to $0.75 per month in the following fiscal year.
Lastly, the bill would expand the duties of the “first first responders,” otherwise known as Public Safety Answering Point emergency telecommunicators, to include training in order to handle the new forms of communication involving text, photos and videos, according to the report.
Earlier this session, the Senate voted unanimously to pass Senate bill 5, a related measure that would protect gruesome imagery of crime scenes or injuries, individuals’ medical histories and identification of domestic violence or rape victims from public view.
That bill, along with this new piece of legislation, was met by opposition from the ACLU of Maryland as the organization argued that the bills are too subjective and provide officials the option to withhold certain information that should be disclosed to the public, according to written testimony.
Senate bill 5 unanimously passed in the state Senate and is scheduled to have a hearing in the state House next week.
Senate bill 339 and House bill 397 have both passed the Maryland House and Senate.