FCC Proposes Rules for Reliable Access to 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

By: Andy Regitsky

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Notice) released January 27, 2023, in Docket No. 23-5, the FCC proposed rules to help ensure that the public has access to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline if a service outage occurs. The new rules would require 988 service providers to report outages that potentially affect 988 service to speed up service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline. Industry comments are due 30 days after the Notice appears in the Federal Register.

According to the Commission, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (988 Lifeline) is a national network of more than 200 crisis centers that helps thousands of people overcome crisis situations every day. Unfortunately,

On December 1, 2022, however, the 988 Lifeline suffered a nationwide outage that lasted several hours, rendering this vital service inaccessible to voice callers. The Department of Health and Human Services announced the outage on Twitter, indicating they were “tracking a widespread national system outage at Intrado, a contractor for crisis providers that supports emergency response needs across the country, including the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline…”. The outage left callers reliant on alternative means to contact the hotline, such as text or webchat hosted at 988lifeline.org, to which the public were directed by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) once it was made aware of the outage. (Notice, at para. 1).

To address this serious issue, the Commission uses the Notice to propose the following rules to ensure that it and those parties that provide life-saving crisis intervention services to people calling the 988 Lifeline, receive timely and actionable information about 988 service outages that potentially affect those services’ ability to meet the immediate health needs of people in suicidal crisis and mental health distress.

The agency proposes to require providers that provide the 988 Lifeline with capabilities such as the ability to receive, process, or forward calls to report outages that potentially affect the 988 Lifeline to the Commission’s Network Outage Reportage System (NORS).

Providers must notify NORS within 120 minutes of discovery of the outage, which must include: the name of the reporting entity; the date and time of onset of the outage; a brief description of the problem; service effects; the geographic area affected by the outage; and a contact name and contact telephone number by which the Commission’s technical staff may contact the reporting entity.

Providers must then submit an initial report within 72 hours of discovery of the outage that contains all pertinent information then available.

They must submit a final report within 30 days of discovery that contains all pertinent information on the outage, including any information that was not contained in, or that has changed from the information provided in, the initial report.

Notifications must contain all available material information about the outage, which includes, among other information, the date and time when the incident began, the types of communications services affected, the geographic area affected by the outage, how the outage affects the 911 special facility, the expected date and time of restoration, and the best-known cause of the outage.

Providers must notify 911 special facilities by telephone and in writing via electronic means in the absence of another method mutually agreed upon in writing in advance by the 911 special facility and the provider.

Providers will be required to transmit initial 911 special facility notifications as soon as possible, but no later than 30 minutes after discovering that they have experienced an outage that potentially affects a 911 special facility; and must communicate additional material information to potentially affected 911 special facilities as the information becomes available, but no later than two hours after the initial notification.

For outages lasting longer than two hours, service providers will need to continue to follow up with additional material information as soon as possible after it becomes available, which continues until the outage is completely repaired and service is fully restored.

Finally, providers must also exercise special diligence to identify, maintain, and, on an annual basis, confirm current contact information appropriate for 911 outage notification for each 911 special facility that serves areas that the service provider serves.