988 suicide hotline can’t trace caller’s location

Although the 988 number cannot “track” callers in the same way as the 911 number, counselors will attempt to direct callers to the nearest crisis center using their area code

The country’s first three-digit mental health hotline, 988, went live on July 16, 2022. She connects callers experiencing a crisis with trained mental health counselors.

Since its inception some persons on social media have claimed that 988 automatically forwards an individual’s geolocation information to the police. Geolocation uses data collected from a person’s computer or phone to determine their actual physical location.

Another person claims that 988 will “actively trace your call” and send the police to you if the lifeline representative deems it necessary. Some critics have said that dispatching police officers to a person’s physical location could endanger populations at increased risk of police violence, including people of color, and discourage people from seeking help.

Several VERIFY viewers on TikTok asked the team to investigate this claim.

THE QUESTION

Can the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 988 send your exact location to the police?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

That's wrong.

No, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline 988 cannot send your exact location to the 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 approved geolocation for 911. This means when someone calls 911, dispatchers use geolocation to pinpoint the location where an emergency call was made and dispatch the police or other emergency services to that location.

But 988 isn’t able to “track” people calling, texting, or using the chat feature in the same way. Instead, mental health counselors will work to route a person’s call to the nearest crisis center using their phone number’s area code, according to an FAQ page on the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline website.

RELATED: Yes, the suicide prevention lifeline switched to 988, but the old number still works

Although the FCC does not 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 such an approach and is “considering various recommendations for next steps consistent with our rules,” the spokesman said.

There are some situations where a 988 Lifeline advisor will provide the caller’s information to the emergency services. If a person is in imminent danger of harming themselves or someone else and “is unwilling or unable to share their location information,” counselors will give any information they have — like the person’s phone number or computer IP address of a chat user – to 911 operator, after the lifeline.

April Heinze, 911 operations director for the nonprofit National Emergency Number Association (NENA), told VERIFY that 988 does not route calls directly to 911. Instead, the Lifeline advisor contacts a 911 center and relays information to the dispatcher.

It’s rare for life coaches to contact emergency services like 911. Both the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) and NENA say less than 2% of calls require this type of intervention.

“While some safety and health issues may warrant a law enforcement and/or emergency services response (namely, when a suicide attempt is in progress), 988’s coordinated response is intended to promote stabilization and care in the least restrictive manner,” SAMHSA says.

If a person is in danger and the life coach is unable to provide location information, they can ask the 911 dispatcher to “initiate a geolocation lookup with the mobile operator or internet service provider,” NENA says on its website, which is slower than the typical geolocation method for a direct 911 call.

But states have different laws governing how a dispatcher can conduct site searches in these imminent risk-of-damage situations, Heinze said.

“Some of the state laws require law enforcement to be involved in order to grant authority to contact the carriers to conduct a search,” she explained.

The search would then be performed by a cell phone provider, and the process isn’t always quick or easy, according to Heinze. Shippers often require a form to be filled out and faxed, and it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to more than an hour to get location information, she added.

Aside from the 988 Lifeline, there are other resources for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

The Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth, has a crisis hotline that people can reach by texting START at 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 74171, also offers free 24-hour support from trained volunteer crisis counselors.

RELATED: ‘Nobody’s talking about it’: Understanding the rise in youth suicides

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Alley Einstein

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