All Montana calls will soon need a 406 to connect

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Suicide incidence in the United States

As the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline prepares for quick dial, Montana and 36 other states are having to tune up their phone numbers to accommodate the new 988 help line.

The three-digit crisis number happens to be the same three-digit number that many people with a Dillon 988 prefix have. The fix will require all Montanans to use the 406 area code for all phone calls, local and long distance.

The new 988 lifeline will work nationwide the same way the 911 emergency number does, starting July 16, 2022. Calling 988 from anywhere should connect the caller with nearby suicide prevention assistance.

The Montana Public Service Commission staff said Friday that everyone should start using the 406 area code for all Montana calls beginning April 24, 2021. Beginning in Oct. 24, 2021, Montana calls without the 406 area code won’t be connected.

Montana contact numbers on your cell phone will likely have to be reprogrammed with the 406 in order to work. Other services, like medical monitoring devices that use a phone number, or security services, will need the 406 added to the call number if the area code isn’t already included.

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“If you preprogram on you cell phone, I know some people just have the seven digits. When this becomes effective, you’re going to have to go in and do the 406, unless cell phone companies have a way of doing it, but not that I know of,” said Tina Shorten, who works on consumer affairs at the PSC.

The national lifeline number has been in the works for some time. In July, to carry out the new law, the Federal Communications Commission approved the 988 number for all telecommunications carriers, interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol providers, and one-way VoIP providers. The new number will replace the current 1-800-273-8255 number used to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

There’s still work to be done before Montana can activate 988, said Matt Kuntz, who directs the Montana branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The states needs about $1 million a year to make 988 functional. NAMI is working with Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, a Helena Democrat, to get a funding bill through the Legislature.

If there’s any grousing by lawmakers about coming up with state money for a new federal program created by Congress, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Gianforte, will be on the second floor of the state Capitol in the governor’s office.

Gianforte introduced the suicide hotline bill in 2019. It was passed by Congress on March 20. The bill “authorizes states to collect a fee limited to supporting local crisis call centers within the national network or enhancements of such services.”

When Congress approved the bill, Gianforte noted that Montana had one of the highest suicide rates in the country. He said suicide was the leading cause of death for Montanans age 15 to 24.

“We’ll see how it goes, but we’re really grateful for Congressman Gianforte to pass that” Kuntz said. “It would have been hard without his support.”