The nation’s first three-digit mental health crisis hotline, 988, went live on July 16, 2022. It connects callers experiencing a crisis with trained mental health counselors.
Since its launch, some people on social media have claimed that 988 will automatically route a person’s geolocation information to police. Geolocation uses data acquired from a person’s computer or phone to find their actual physical location.
Another person claimed that 988 “will actively trace your call” and send police to you if the lifeline representative thinks it’s necessary. Some critics have said that sending police to someone’s physical location could endanger populations who are at increased risk of police violence, including people of color, as well as discourage people from seeking help.
Several VERIFY viewers on TikTok asked the team to look into this claim.
Can the 988 suicide prevention lifeline send your exact location to police?
No, the 988 suicide prevention lifeline can’t send your exact location to police.
WHAT WE FOUND
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is the governing body that determines which agencies are allowed to use geolocation, told VERIFY in an emailed statement that “geolocation services are not currently enabled for 988.”
The FCC has allowed geolocation for 911. That means when someone calls 911, dispatchers use geolocation to pinpoint the location where an emergency call was placed, and send police or other emergency services to that location.
But 988 is not capable of “tracing” people who call, text or use the chat feature in the same way. Instead, mental health counselors will work to route a person’s call to their nearest crisis center by using their phone number’s area code, an FAQs page on the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline website says.
Though the FCC doesn’t currently allow geolocation for 988 calls, the agency has considered changing that policy. The FCC hosted a forum in May 2022 to discuss the pros and cons of doing so, and is “considering various recommendations for next steps that are in line with our rules,” the spokesperson said.
There are some situations when a 988 Lifeline counselor will provide the caller’s information to emergency services. If a person is at imminent risk of harming themselves or someone else and is “unwilling or unable to share their location information,” counselors will provide any information they have – such as the person’s phone number or a chat user’s computer IP address – to 911 operators, according to the lifeline.
April Heinze, 911 Operations Director for the nonprofit National Emergency Number Association (NENA), explained to VERIFY that 988 doesn’t directly transfer calls to 911. Instead, the lifeline counselor contacts a 911 center and relays information to the dispatcher.
It’s rare for lifeline counselors to contact emergency services such as 911. Both the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and NENA say fewer than 2% of calls require this type of action.
“While some safety and health issues may warrant a response from law enforcement and/or Emergency Medical Services (namely when a suicide attempt is in progress), the 988 coordinated response is intended to promote stabilization and care in the least restrictive manner,” SAMHSA says.
If a person is in danger and the lifeline counselor isn’t able to provide location information, they may ask the 911 dispatcher to “initiate a geolocation lookup with the wireless carrier or Internet service provider,” NENA says on its website, a process that’s slower than the typical geolocation method for a direct 911 call.
But states have different laws in place that determine how a dispatcher can do location lookups in these imminent risk of harm situations, Heinze said.
“Some of the state laws require law enforcement to be involved to give authority to contact the carriers to do a lookup,” she explained.
The lookup would then be conducted by a cellphone carrier, and the process isn’t always quick or easy, according to Heinze. Carriers will often require a form to be filled out and faxed to them, and it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to upwards of one hour to receive location information, she added.
Apart from the 988 lifeline, there are other resources available for people experiencing a mental health crisis.
The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth, has a crisis line that people can reach by texting START to 678-678 or calling 1-866-488-7386. People can also chat with a crisis counselor online.
The Crisis Text Line, which can be reached by texting HOME to 741741, also provides free, 24/7 support from trained volunteer crisis counselors.