FCC Bars Non-Emergency Robocalls to PSAP Numbers

New rules impose new obligations, hefty potential penalties, on politicians and non-profits (including NCE broadcasters) who use automatic phone dialing gear for public outreach.

Unwanted marketing telephone calls are merely annoying for most of us, but in some cases they’re actually dangerous. A marketing call that goes to a number in a 911 service center can block capacity needed for an emergency call – basically, it ties up a line that could and should otherwise be open for real emergency calls, not commercial come-ons or requests for contributions – and the results can be disastrous. 

Simply blocking “911” from automatic dialing equipment won’t do the trick. That’s because the well-known “911” is just an expedient device making it easy for the public to reach help in case of an emergency. In fact, when you dial “911,” your call is directed to a conventional 10-digit phone number at a Public Safety Answering Point, or “PSAP”. The full 10-digit numbers associated with PSAP’s aren’t generally publicized, but that makes no difference to automatic equipment that initiates marketing calls. That equipment simply dials random or sequential numbers; the odds are that such calls will hit some PSAP numbers sooner or later.

The FCC has now adopted rules establishing a new and separate “do-not-call” registry designed specifically to protect PSAP numbers from non-emergency calls. Why? Because Congress told them to do it in the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 – the same sweeping law that brought us, among other things, the reverse and forward auctions aimed at TV spectrum repacking. The new rules apply to both voice and text messaging calls to PSAP numbers. Congress wasn’t fooling around, and neither is the FCC. The statute mandates fines of at least $100,000 and up to $1 million per call for automatically dialed calls (“robocalls”) directed to PSAP numbers. Telemarketers must check the FCC’s database at least once every 31 days.

We hope that most, if not all, of you are familiar with the “Do Not Call” list created several years ago by the FCC and Federal Trade Commission (FTC). You can put your home number on the list at www.donotcall.gov (some 209 million numbers have been registered). Telemarketers (at least those who observe the law) are not allowed to call numbers on that list.

But the FTC’s “Do Not Call” list doesn’t stop all uninvited – and possibly unwanted – calls.

The FTC’s system has some big exceptions. In particular, charitable and political organizations are allowed to call numbers on the “Do Not Call” list because their calls are deemed to be noncommercial and, thus, entitled to greater First Amendment protection. The result, as most of us experienced first-hand during the most recent national election, can be a near-constant stream of unwanted calls asking our opinions about candidates and/or issues or importuning us to vote one way or the other or contribute money.

Which brings us to the big catch in the FCC’s “PSAP Do Not Call” list. Since any call – whether it’s commercial or noncommercial – that blocks an emergency call can have serious consequences, the FCC’s new rules apply to charitable and political organizations as well as commercial telemarketers. That means that the non-profit and political worlds will now have to check the PSAP do-not-call registry before they fire up their robocallers. 

Having to deal with the FCC’s “PSAP Do Not Call” list will require some adjustments for charitable and political organizations. They’ll probably have to pay a fee to access the PSAP list, but at least the FCC’s PSAP list will be a lot smaller, and presumably less expensive to deal with, than the FTC’s more general 209-million number “Do Not Call” list. But more importantly, organizations that have previously not had to worry about programming their auto-dialers to avoid certain numbers are going to have to learn how to comply. 

Presumably robocalls to lists of an organization’s own members will be permitted, since those lists should not have any PSAP numbers on them. But any calling organization that strays away from numbers it is absolutely certain are not PSAP numbers will be taking a risk and will be subject to major league sanctions if it guesses wrong. There won’t be any “safe harbor” for organizations that try to avoid PSAP numbers and fail. 

Broadcasters who operate noncommercial radio and TV stations and use automatic dialing systems to initiate fund-raising calls should take notice. If the list of numbers dialed is not limited to known contributors, such stations will have to check the PSAP Do Not Call list every month to make sure that no PSAP numbers are dialed. And even if such stations think their lists are appropriately limited, they may want to check the official list anyway – with potential penalties running into six or seven figures for a single violation, monthly checking against the FCC’s list seems a small price to pay for insurance.

Of course, PSAPs are also going to have to participate. Each will be expected to designate a representative who will be the only person authorized to add numbers to, or delete numbers from, the FCC’s list. Those representatives will be responsible for updating their respective PSAP’s numbers on the list once a year. The FCC’s PSAP Do Not Call list will be kept highly secure and confidential, so don’t get any ideas that you may be able to find out the plain number of your local PSAP.

There is one exception to the new rules. Autodialers may be used to call PSAP numbers as part of emergency alert systems. In other words, the proposed rules won’t stop an emergency center from disseminating information to PSAP’s using autodialers.

Because the new rules require the FCC to gather information, they must be approved by OMB before they can go into effect. The effective date will be announced by further order. Check back here for updates on that front.

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