Proposed changes seek to improve system for 988 callers

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Posted at 5:40 PM, May 02, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-02 19:40:13-04

HELENA — It’s been almost two years since the official launch of 988, the three-digit phone number intended to make it easier to reach the national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Now leaders are talking about a potential change to help make sure callers are connected to the right support as soon as possible.

When someone calls 988, they’re connected to one of more than 200 regional crisis centers across the country. Currently, which center their call goes to is based on the area code of their phone – but with the ubiquity of cell phones, that isn’t necessarily the closest one to the caller.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to keep moving forward with a proposal to change that. They are considering rules that would eventually require wireless phone companies to implement “georouting” – directing calls based on a caller’s general location, using information like what cell tower originated the call.

“This provides a more accurate picture of a caller’s actual location, while still protecting their privacy,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “More importantly, georouting means those responding to 988 inquiries have a lot more knowledge of local resources and are better equipped to assist the caller with getting the help they need.”

MTN reached out to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, to find out whether they’ve seen a need to address the routing of 988 calls. The department said in a statement that making sure callers with out-of-state area codes are directed to the right centers is a challenge nationwide – but that the vast majority of 988 calls Montana centers receive are from the 406 area code.

988 Montana Calls

In 2023, DPHHS says the three Montana centers – Voices of Hope in Great Falls, The Help Center in Bozeman and Western Montana Mental Health Center in Missoula – received more than 8,000 988 calls. Of those, 7,394 – about 90% – were from 406 numbers within the state. Another 500 – about 6% – were from the 406 area code, but the caller was out of state. In 214 calls – just under 3% – callers were in Montana but didn’t have a 406 number, though DPHHS says about half of those were staff testing the lines or other “non-transactional” calls.

“When a call comes from an out-of-state area code the center in that state can quickly transfer to 406 in order for it to be answered in Montana,” a DPHHS spokesperson said in a statement. “Our centers have reported an extremely low hang-up rate, so most of those callers are staying on the line to be transferred.”

The FCC acknowledged it will take time and cooperation with service providers to come up with a georouting implementation that works for everyone involved, and they promised to take a “holistic review” to find a solution.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing a suicidal or mental health crisis, you can call 988 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to get connected to trained counselors. You can find more information here.