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Fence to prevent jumpers from Bel Air parking garage considered, sensors save two lives

Bel Air's town administrator says sensors installed in the six-level public parking garage prevented to potential suicides. Three people have died by jumping from the structure since mid-2014.
Bel Air's town administrator says sensors installed in the six-level public parking garage prevented to potential suicides. Three people have died by jumping from the structure since mid-2014. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

At least two people have been saved from committing suicide at the Town of Bel Air's Hickory Avenue parking garage because of a sensor installed in the six-story facility where three people have jumped to their deaths in the past two years.

Bel Air town officials are looking into additional measures to prevent suicides from the tallest structure in the Harford County seat, such as fencing around the top deck.

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Signs are posted in the garage stairwells to discourage people from trying to jump and provide them contact information for local crisis intervention organizations.

"We've done a lot of research, we've done a lot of work but we're not through," Town Administrator Jesse Bane said. "We still have a little ways to go."

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Police activity and a medical emergency reported in the vicinity of the Bel Air public parking garage Monday morning involved a man who jumped to his death from the multi-story structure, the Bel Air Police Department said.

Bane said fencing, which should be "aesthetically pleasing but also prevents the suicide from occurring," would be the town's most expensive prevention method at the garage, which is owned jointly by the town and Harford County government.

Bel Air officials have consulted with engineers at Aberdeen Proving Ground as part of their research into fencing. Bane said an exact figure on the cost is not available yet, but a "ballpark figure" would be about a quarter of a million dollars.

Officials are seeking funding sources, according to Bane. A request will be in the fiscal 2018 capital budget, which town staff are starting to develop.

The sensor is activated when the garage is closed after work hours and during weekends and holidays, Bane said.

After two suicide jumps from Bel Air's downtown parking garage within eight months, Town Administrator Jesse Bane said he is considering security measures in hopes of preventing such attempts in the future.

An alarm will go off in the town's police communications center is someone enters the garage during those hours, and police can track the person through security cameras.

"We will dispatch an officer as soon as the alarm is sounded, and they maintain a visual," Bane said. "It's considered a priority call."

The sensor was installed a few months before the third suicide happened in early March. A man jumped off the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the garage. Two women also have jumped to their deaths, one in June of 2015 and the first in October of 2014.

The most recent incident happened shortly before 8 a.m., during working hours, so the sensor would not have been active then, according to Bane.

He noted police have stopped two people from killing themselves when they entered the garage after hours.

"They indicated, had we not responded, it was their intent to jump," Bane said.

A woman in her 50s jumped to her death from the Bel Air parking garage Wednesday morning, police said.

He said town leaders "received inquiries, questions and pressure from the public" after the first incident in 2014. Officials already were putting plans in place to prevent additional suicides after Bane became town administrator in January of 2015.

Those initiatives include collaborating with the nonprofit Healthy Harford and the Harford County Mobile Crisis Team to develop signage – the town and county own the garage, which was built in 1990 – and putting police officers and dispatchers through suicide prevention training.

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"On a daily basis, law enforcement today is dealing with mental health issues on the street," said Bane, a former Harford County sheriff.

He said "it's not unusual" for officers to handle a call involving a person who has barricaded themselves in a room and is threatening to end their lives.

"Suicide is one of those things that's flying under the radar," Bane said.

Jamie Filiaggi helped form the Friends R Family Foundation, not just to honor his late wife, but to help the entire community, because mental health affects virtually everyone. The foundation is hosting its first 5K run and 1-mile family walk Sunday.

People have killed themselves in recent years by jumping off the Millard Tydings Memorial Bridge into the Susquehanna River, or shot themselves either at home or in public places.

A 69-year-old man shot himself while he was a patient at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air in September of 2015.

The most recent fatal incident happened Monday when an 86-year-old man shot himself near Annie's Playground in Fallston.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office is investigating what was initially reported as a possible self-inflicted shooting near Annie's Playground in Fallston Monday afternoon.

The suicide rate in Harford County was 11.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014, according to Harford County Health Department data – 2014 was the most recent year for which data was available.

The mortality rate is below the U.S. rate of 12.9 deaths the same year, but it is above the statewide rate of 9.2, according to health department data.

The number of suicides has outstripped the number of homicides in Harford County each year between 2008 and 2014, according to the health department.

Harford County's health department is trying to educate more community leaders about warning signs of suicide, which remains "a significant cause of death in the U.S.," county social work services director Paula Nash said.

Twelve people were murdered in 2008, compared to 31 people who killed themselves. There were four homicides and 29 suicides in 2009, eight homicides and 30 suicides in 2010, seven homicides and 28 suicides in 2011, seven homicides and 32 suicides in 2012, eight homicides and 26 suicides in 2013 and nine homicides and 33 suicides in 2014, according to the data.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call 911, the Mobile Crisis Team at 410-638-5248 between 8 a.m. and midnight, the Maryland Crisis Hotline at 1-800-422-0009, 24 hours a day, or the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, ext. 1.

More information is available on local mental health resources by calling the county's Office on Mental Health/Core Services Agency at 410-803-8726, or visit http://harfordcountyhealth.com for a Behavioral Health Resource Guide.

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