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In aftermath of State House lockdown, leaders say a text emergency system is coming

The State House during Thursday evening’s lockdown. Photo by Bryan P. Sears.

A day after an unfounded threat of violence locked down the legislative complex in Annapolis for two hours on Thursday evening, few new details have emerged on what happened or the official response.

“It is a situation that’s under investigation,” Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) told reporters Friday. “And so, I can’t get into too much detail on some of the specific responses or causes.”

In addition to probes and follow-up actions by the various law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction over the State House and the immediate area, Gov. Wes Moore (D) said Friday his administration would conduct an “after-action review.”

Moore said that in general he was pleased and grateful for the police response but wanted to make sure the law enforcement activities are even more seamless in case of a future emergency.

“We’re going to pressure test to make sure we’re doing everything better,” he said.

A spokesperson for Moore said Friday morning the Department of General Services, which oversees the Maryland Capitol Police, would release a timeline later in the day of events that took place after a man called a threat in to Annapolis police on Thursday afternoon that he was headed to the State House with a loaded gun. But none was released by the close of business Friday evening.

That call late Thursday prompted an immediate lockdown and shelter-in-place order in the State House and surrounding government buildings that lasted from about 5 p.m. to 6:52 p.m. But police eventually said they found no signs of suspicious activity, and normal security protocols were reinstated.

Moore said he was in his office on the second floor of the State House when the threat came in, preparing to go across the street to Government House, the governor’s residence, where several mayors from across the state were gathering for a reception.

“Like anybody, your mind immediately goes to how your people are doing,” he said — referring both to his family and his staff.

On Thursday and Friday, several legislators, staffers, lobbyists, and others who were in the State House or other legislative buildings during the lockdown complained that there was little or no notification about the nature of the emergency or what to do.

“Within the structure we have right now, [state troopers] did an amazing job,” said Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel). “I think we all would like a world in which we had a text service to keep us informed.”

Ferguson acknowledged the frustration.

“I think these situations are fast moving and quick,” he said. “There’s always places for improvement.”

And yet even before Thursday’s emergency, the legislature’s presiding officers were developing a plan to improve emergency communications around the Capitol complex.

Ferguson and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) announced Friday they had signed a contract for a new text message alert system.

“The speaker and I have been talking about this issue for quite a while given the construction that’s happening on campus,” Ferguson said. “We have been very concerned about having clear lines of communication.”

Jones told her colleagues during the House floor session Friday that the state has been working with the Maryland Office of Information systems “for quite a while” on establishing the text alert system.

“We’ll continue our efforts to improve coordination and communication based on yesterday’s experience,” she said.

The legislature’s contract with Motorola will provide a text message alert system for emergencies and other events.

“We know that the communication during [Thursday’s] event is something where we know that 95% of the challenges that happened with communication will be solved with a real alert system,” Ferguson said. “I feel confident in that moving forward.”

The system, called the Motorola Rave, allows for distribution of emergency messages to cell phones.

A spokesperson for Ferguson said the system works in two ways. It can be pre-programmed to include mobile phone numbers. It also has a geo-fencing system that will allow messages to be sent to devices in a specific area even if the phones are not subscribed to the system, allowing visitors and others to be alerted if there is an emergency in the State House vicinity.

Obtaining the system was complicated by the number of agencies and branches of government that have various responsibilities for area security.

The Department of General Services oversees the Maryland Capitol Police, which provides security. The legislature is responsible for the campus and staff in the State House complex.

The cost of the contract through the legislature’s Office of Information Technology was not immediately available.

Testing for the new system was expedited in the wake of Thursday’s threat and a bomb scare in January. It is scheduled to begin as early as this weekend.

“Do I wish we had it yesterday? Of course,” said Ferguson.

“The sad reality of today is that this is not uncommon,” said Ferguson. “We have seen an increased number of threats being made to the campus, to members in the political process. I think this is the consequence of what happens when political rhetoric gets out of control and political extremes turn into inflaming those who may be unstable to do something physical.”

Angelique Gingras of Capital News Service contributed to this report.


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In aftermath of State House lockdown, leaders say a text emergency system is coming