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Bel Air to look into suicide prevention at parking garage

After two suicides at Bel Air's parking garage within eight months, Town Administrator Jesse Bane said he is considering security measures in hopes of preventing such attempts in the future.
After two suicides at Bel Air's parking garage within eight months, Town Administrator Jesse Bane said he is considering security measures in hopes of preventing such attempts in the future. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, Baltimore Sun)

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.

"I have had discussions with a couple of my department heads," Bane said last week. "We are going to take a look at what other jurisdictions have done to better discourage people from suicide attempts."

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On Oct. 15, 2014, a Bel Air-area woman died after jumping from the garage, at 16 S. Hickory Ave. On June 24, another woman jumped to her death from the structure.

"Whatever we do in the future to better secure the garage, it's going to cost money, and that could be a very costly proposition," Bane said.

Harford County has the 10th-highest rate of suicide in the state, the county's health department reported in May. Health officials said 16 percent of high school students and 15 percent of middle school students reported having serious thoughts about ending their lives in the past year.

As recently as Wednesday, a person jumped to their death from the King and Queen Seat in Rocks State Park, according to Maryland Natural Resources Police.

Suicide was the third top manner of death reported to Maryland's Office of the Medical Examiner in 2012. That year, 579 people died of suicide, 459 of them males.

The six-story Bel Air garage, built 25 years ago, is one of the tallest structures in town, with its top floor ranging from 50 to 55 feet tall, town Public Works Director Steve Kline said. The garage is owned jointly by the town and Harford County, which share its maintenance and operating costs – as well as revenue – on a one-third/two-thirds basis, but the town manages the facility.

The two fatal falls from the garage are the only such acts local officials can recall in the structure's history.

Research has suggested preventive barriers and similar measures can reduce suicide attempts.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends reducing access to lethal methods, noting that preventive barriers studied on a bridge in England cut the number of deaths by preventing more impulsive acts.

The foundation has been pushing for suicide barriers on the Golden Gate and other bridges in California, where suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 25 to 34. San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge was approved to get $76 million for a suicide barrier last year.

Larry Cohen, a Bel Air resident and executive director for the Lancaster Parking Authority, in Lancaster, Pa., installed a fence and anti-suicide signage after dealing with five suicides in 1 1/2 years at Prince Street Garage, one of seven parking garages in the Pennsylvania city.

Cohen said he realized the initiative, which cost about $100,000, was needed to change the perception of the Prince Street Garage as a place to go to end one's life.

"I tried to fight it, but the reality is, fencing is part of prevention," he said about the costly decision. "The fencing is definitely a way of saying, 'We are not going to have this happen here anymore.'"

"We have to be careful, in Bel Air, that the garage doesn't become one of those iconic sites, which is what happened in Lancaster," Cohen said, noting that Lancaster has not had a suicide at the garage since the fencing was erected in March.

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Cohen, a senior-level parking manager for three decades, is writing a guide on preventing suicides at parking structures, in hopes of helping other communities.

"Unfortunately, throughout my whole career, I have had to deal with suicides from garages," Cohen said.

Fencing off a whole garage like Bel Air's would cost at least $250,000, Cohen said. Lancaster installed an 8-foot-high, chain link fence with small links that cannot be climbed.

Other physical barriers could include "geofencing" that can trigger an electronic message or lights turning on, increased security patrols and enhanced landscaping around the garage, according to Cohen.

Signs, one of the most common suicide prevention methods, can list available resources, most notably a national suicide hotline.

Pedestrian access control readers and suicide barriers are "two effective but costly methods" of preventing such acts at a garage, according to an article by the International Parking Institute.

Training parking staff to recognize the signs of a potentially suicidal person is also "highly effective," according to the article. Bel Air's garage is not staffed, and parking is paid for either by meter or through leases with the town.

About 34 percent of suicide deaths between 2005 and 2007 occurred at a transportation site like a garage, highway or train station, according to the 2010 International Parking Institute article.

Richard Carter, who worked as an police officer with Bel Air for 38 years, recalled a suicide attempt about 20 years ago at the Bel Air garage in which he helped talk the victim down.

Carter, who retired in 2011, isn't sure barriers would make a difference. He said the woman he talked down from the garage's ledge made a premeditated suicide attempt.

"She had driven up to the parking garage because she was distraught over something that had happened," he said, recalling working with the victim "for the better part of an hour" on a bitterly cold night.

"I was just lucky I got her to come down," he said. "I truly think if someone wanted to do it, they could do it."

Carter said listening to people and getting them help pre-emptively may be more important than erecting barriers, but he also expressed concern about the person who doesn't announce or otherwise give outward signs they may be considering taking their life.

"If they cry for help, they are not really intent on it. It's the one that goes off by themselves that are bound to do it," Carter said about his experience. "People just need to listen to their family and their friends, because you just never know when you are going to [be faced with that situation]."

Town Administrator Bane said mental illness has received more attention in recent years and decades in general. A career police officer who served as the county's sheriff for eight years until last December, Bane noted that when he first joined the Sheriff's Office in 1972, "it was very rare that we ever had anyone in the [Harford County] Detention Center with a mental health issue."

Today, he said, about 60 percent of those in the detention center taking medicine related to treatment for mental illnesses.

Sue Lichtfuss, program coordinator for Sheppard Pratt's Mobile Crisis Team for Harford County, said their goal is to reach people before they get to the point of a suicide attempt.

"Education and breaking down the stigma is our biggest task right now," she said, noting it has been very difficult to get residents to come to programs on mental health.

She said the crisis team has been trying to hold sessions on topics such as handling stress, which people may be more willing to address.

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"I do see that the county is working together with all the different agencies to get the word out," she said.

The Bel Air Police Department has urged anyone experiencing feelings of despair or desperation to call the Harford County Mobile Crisis, 410-638-5248, or the 24-hour hotline, 410-931-2214.

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