Summoning the police or fire department is an act so straightforward, children are drilled to remember the significance of dialing “911” before they show up for the first day of kindergarten. Digits for directory assistance — 411 — are nearly as identifiable. 

Soon enough, a lifeline for those in the throes of a mental health crisis will be just as casually memorable.

The Federal Communications Commission last Thursday adopted “988” as a national suicide hotline. Its decision requires phone companies to implement the service within the next two years. Even though the FCC left details unresolved — most essential is how to pay for it — it deserves credit for keeping the momentum going in this effort to save lives.

We are now served by many suicide hotlines of the 11-digit variety. This will make the number to dial more easily recalled and, as such, more marketable. The hope is that it will save precious time now squandered as someone who needs to talk fishes around for information about whom to call.

Answering the phone when it rings sounds easy enough, but it’s not happening anywhere near as efficiently as it should. As many as a quarter of the calls to some hotlines are deflected, with callers either encouraged to try again or wait as their calls are rerouted to another call center in another state.

“Imagine if 25% of the people who called because they were having a heart attack simply didn’t have their calls answered at the 911 centers,” Congressman Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat, told WBUR last summer. “That’s unacceptable, and it’s got to end for this, as well.”

One can presume the problem is only exaggerated by effects of a pandemic, including widespread joblessness and social isolation. Even if suicide prevention call centers were not understaffed, setting up a three-digit number that automatically directs people their way is not as straightforward or cheap as it sounds. 

So, there are big, expensive questions left for Congress to answer. Moulton has lobbied to allow states to require phone carriers to levy fees to support a national, three-digit hotline. Whatever the source of money, this new nationwide number and the call centers it serves cannot fulfill their important role without it.

Two years from now, it seems likely that someone in need may pick up a phone and dial “988.” It’s still up to Congress to ensure a human answers at the other end.

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