The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has adopted its proposal to establish “988” as a nationwide abbreviated telephone dialing code to reach the National Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis hotline. “988” will replace or supplement the existing 800 number (1-800-273-TALK). The proposal was discussed in our blog post on January 7, 2020.

Congress has passed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018, directing the FCC to consider the feasibility of a 3-digit abbreviated dialing code. In response, the FCC adopted rules that closely follow what it proposed, concluding that the number of actual and potential suicides is serious enough to justify action and that a 3-digit dialing code will make it easier and faster for potential suicide victims to reach help.

Proposals to expand or repurpose an existing “N11” code (211, 311, 411, etc.) were rejected, because use of any of those numbers would take longer to implement. The public would have to be re-educated about numbers that are now used for hundreds of millions of calls each year, and an N11 suicide line might be burdened with calls intended for the previous service.

Implementation of the 988 dialing code will be mandatory for domestic telephone companies of all sizes, including both traditional telcos and two-way and one-way Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) providers. The FCC concluded that the costs of implementing 988 dialing, including replacement of an estimated 12% of local switches, will be much lower than the value of lives that should be saved through better suicide prevention. Each telephone company will have to bear its own costs; there will be no federal subsidy.

Many members of the public not contemplating suicide will be affected by implementation of 988, because it will bring the nation closer to the end of 7-digit dialing for local calls. There are approximately 90 Area Codes that still allow 7-digit dialing and have a local exchange with a “988” prefix. All of those areas will be required to implement 10-digit dialing, where the Area Code is dialed for both local and non-local calls. The FCC considered an alternative to transitioning these areas to 10-digit dialing, which would be to have the local switch wait a certain amount of time after receiving 988, to see whether additional digits are dialed before deciding whether to route the call to the suicide center or to a local customer. The FCC decided not to implement this solution because a delay system could result in call routing errors, as well as the abandonment of calls by potential suicide victims confused by the delay.

The FCC decided that all 988 calls should be directed to the national Lifeline and Veterans Crisis Line. The national center can decide whether to handle the call or pass it on to a regional center.   The FCC turned down a request for a special arrangement to direct calls originating in Puerto Rico to a suicide prevention center on that island because of the extra cost and implementation delay that would be incurred. The Puerto Rican center can request certification to participate in the national Lifeline.

There is no indication that the FCC will require private switches in places like hotels and large businesses to pass through “988” calls without having to dial “9” first to get an outside line. While 911 calls must be passed to emergency response centers without dialing any prefix, no such requirement applies to any of the other N11 codes. Texting capability to 988 is also not being mandated at this time.

One change that the FCC did make in its original proposal was to delay the mandatory implementation date from 18 months to 24 months, with the new deadline for implementation by all voice service providers now set for July 16, 2022. Voice service providers will need to begin promptly making arrangements to reprogram or to replace their switches to implement 988 dialing.

It remains to be seen whether two years will be enough time to accomplish universal deployment of 988 abbreviated dialing. Meanwhile, mental health advocates will welcome the anticipated improved access to suicide support services.