Golden Gate Bridge district to build first responder training facility for suicide net rescues

Rescue crews face multiple challenges, including what to do if a person is uncooperative or if they attempt to jump from the stainless-steel net


Will Houston
The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

SAN FRANCISCO — For more than a decade, Golden Gate Bridge officials have labored to build a massive net to catch people who jump from the span. Now, as the estimated $215 million project nears completion late next year, work is beginning to solve another problem: how to help people out.

On Friday, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District voted to purchase a new $824,000 training facility near Mill Valley. The idea is to train Bay Area first responders, law enforcement and bridge ironworkers on how to recover people who may be injured in the 20-foot fall after hitting the stainless steel net.

Rescue crews face multiple challenges, including what to do if a person is uncooperative or if they attempt to jump from the net into the waters 200 feet below.

The Southern Marin Fire Protection District will be among the first responders to the scene and will house the new training facility at its existing training tower in Strawberry.

Tom Welch, the district's deputy chief of training and operations, said he expects the presence of the massive net and the 20-foot drop to deter most people from jumping.

"History has shown in other areas such as Ithaca, New York, that it actually does work," Welch said, referring to nets installed at Cornell University bridges in 2013 in response to suicides. "The amount of folks we anticipate bringing out of the net is relatively small. But of course, we train for it like it could occur at any time."

The suicide net has been under construction since 2018 and is set for completion in November 2023 after multiple delays. The project began after years of advocacy by families and friends of people who had jumped off the bridge and died after hitting the water nearly 245 feet below. More than 1,800 have fallen to their deaths from the bridge since it opened in 1937.

The 20-foot-wide net will be placed on each side of the bridge and will sit 20 feet below the bridge span. Originally set for completion in January 2021, the project has faced several construction delays. Originally estimated to cost $76 million when the project went out to bid in 2015, the cost has increased to about $206 million, but is expected to reach $215 million by the time it is completed.

The net will be made of four-millimeter stainless steel ropes, with the mesh only wide enough to allow fingers or a small hand to reach through. The net is a hard surface, meaning a person who lands on it will likely sustain injuries such as broken bones. While this is meant to deter a person from jumping at all, bridge district Chief Engineer Ewa Bauer-Furbush told the district Board of Directors this week that "it is important to have a rescue plan for such incidents at the Golden Gate Bridge" to prepare for the possibility.

The new training facility will include a mockup of the bridge net to allow first responders to practice high-angle rope rescues. Rescuers will be harnessed to a rope and lowered into the net. After securing the person who jumped, they will be raised back onto the span.

Firefighters are already trained for these types of high-angle rope rescues, Welch said.

"In fact, our firefighters are very seasoned at this," Welch said. "They respond out to the Marin Headlands frequently, they find themselves on ropes off of bluffs rescuing people all the time. So this is just another element to that practice. Every firefighter will be trained to this level."

As opposed to hikers in distress, people who jump from the bridge may be despondent or uncooperative. That is why the rescues often require the aid of several agencies, including law enforcement and the bridge ironworkers, Welch said.

"We have to be very deliberate about how we engage with that person to get them the help that they need," Welch said.

Training on a fire tower less than 50 feet high is much different from doing so nearly 250 feet above the Pacific Ocean. After crews get familiarized with the setup of the net, training will eventually be moved to the bridge span itself once the net is completed, Welch said.

Bauer-Furbush said the new training area is now set to go out to bid. The estimated construction time is nine months.

Ken Holmes, a former Marin County coroner for 12 years, is one of the founding members of the Bridge Rail Foundation, a nonprofit group that has been advocating for the suicide net since 2006. For the last 15 years, Holmes has also pushed for a training center to prepare first responders.

"Every moment's delay can mean the difference in someone else's life so I'm excited to hear that they're even at this stage," Holmes said. "Once the money is in place the rest of it will follow."

“Suicide is always preventable. If you are having thoughts of suicide or feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately at 800-273-8255. Counselors are also available to chat at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Remember: You deserve to be supported, and it is never too late to seek help. Speak with someone today.” 

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(c)2022 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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