988 Crisis Response System Failure Puts Integration with 911 Into Sharp Focus
Posted on December 5, 2022 by John Chiaramonte
A few weeks ago, Darrin Reilly, MCP’s president and CEO, authored a blog that explained why the new 988 system launched in September needs to be integrated with the existing 911 system. Late last week, we found out why this is a good idea.The 988 system, also known as the Suicide and Crisis Hotline, suffered an outage at 10:00 a.m. Eastern on December 1 that lasted approximately 14 hours. At the outage’s outset, calls to 988 could not be completed, but callers could still communicate with the hotline via text or chat. But it’s likely that many callers were unaware of this option, given the newness of the service.
Eventually, a message was sent to callers that indicated the outage had not been resolved and instructed them to send a text to 988 or click on an embedded link that would enable them to initiate a chat session.
Now that the 988 service has been restored, we can turn our attention to taking steps to enhance the system's reliability and resiliency. Sometimes painful lessons learned over many years in the 911 community certainly can benefit those charged with overseeing 988’s mission-critical services.
As we said a few months ago, integration between 911 and 988 remains important. For those communities who already have a close working relationship and policies in place between 911 and their local 988 crisis centers, a 988 system outage likely would have been less serious. People in need could have dialed 911 when 988 was unavailable and 911 could have transferred calls directly to the crisis center. We’re also seeing some progressive 911 authorities implementing solutions that include training mental health professionals who then are embedded in their 911 operations — such professionals would have been helpful in this situation as well.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also is likely to take great interest in this recent outage. Just last month, the FCC released its Report and Order regarding enhanced 911 outage reporting requirements for covered 911 system and originating service providers. It seems reasonable that similar requirements for 988 system service providers should be considered for implementation.
When news of the 988-system outage began to emerge on social media, we assume that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) — which oversees the 988 system — worked to execute a continuity-of-operations plan (COOP) that also included a crisis communications plan. Although there was some use of social media to alert the community about the outage, it doesn’t appear that there was any coordinated or official notification to 911 authorities. Timely notifications will be especially important as we continue to seek opportunities to strengthen the link between these two mission-critical services.
There’s always room for improvement after an unplanned service outage and I’m sure that 911 leaders throughout the community, including state 911 executives who are members of the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA), are eager to lend their expertise and assistance to the mental-health community. For example, as 911 authorities consider how to share information with the 988 system and vice versa, it makes sense that they would encourage a collaborative and nationwide educational program so that everyone knows what to do if the 911 and/or 988 systems become unavailable. Concerning the latter, the 800 number used by the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — the precursor to the 988 system — remained operational during the 988 system outage. But how many people knew that?
John Chiaramonte is president of MCP’s consulting division. Email him at JohnChiaramonte@MissionCriticalPartners.com.