City Grapples with Long-Term Solutions to Deter Colorado Street Bridge Suicides

Suicide Prevention on Colorado Street Bridge, 1940sColorado Street Bridge, 1943A prevented suicide, 1988Temporary fencing plan, July, 2017Work begins on emergency fencing, July 14, 2017The Colorado Street Bridge

By BRANDON VILLALOVOS and EDDIE RIVERA with DAVID CROSS | Images courtesy City of Pasadena

5:37 am | July 19, 2017

In the 1930′s in the depths of the Depression, Pasadena staffed the Colorado Street Bridge with its own police detail and eventually built a tall chain link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire after as 79 souls tragically jumped to their deaths off the majestic, iconically Pasadena structure.

Tonight the City’s Public Safety Committee is set to confront what long-terms deterrents should be deployed now in reaction to a significant recent uptick in suicides and attempted suicides on the bridge.

Meanwhile, on the bridge, work is continuing on emergency fencing.

Twenty-one incidents have occurred so far this year, resulting in six deaths, according to Pasadena Public Information Officer William Boyer. During a recent two week period, there were three incidents.

‘There has been a surge in suicide attempts recently,” said Tornek, “ And we felt like we had to change behaviors, and make a highly visible effort to try to deter people from doing that.”

Tornek emphasized, however, that the emergency fence is temporary.

Said Tornek, “We know that aesthetically, this is awful. It was never intended as a long-term solution, but it’s the best we could do, in terms of an immediate response.”

“People are hard at work at solutions,” the mayor continued, saying, “There will be a very careful, measured response for a long-term solution.”

According to City Manager Steve Mermell, City staff contracted for emergency fencing at the alcove locations along the bridge, the points where officials believe people are slipping through the existing protective fencing and gaining access to the outside ledge.

The installation of the temporary deterrent began last week and will feature ten foot tall barriers constructed with one inch square mesh fencing upon completion.

“This, we felt, would be the most effective for a short-term solution,” said Mayor Terry Tornek.

The barriers will be installed at all 20 of the bridge’s alcove sections which are believed to be the areas of the structure that provide “steps” to an elevation where jumpers can go over the railing, according to a city report.

The installation of the temporary fencing will cost between $50,000 and $60,000, officials said.

“We’re having a series of meetings to come up with a permanent solution. This was never intended as a long-term solution, but it’s the best we can do in terms of immediate response,” said Tornek. “The whole thing is abhorrent. It’s just something that you don’t like to think about and we just needed to act. There are human lives at stake here.”
The Public Safety Committee will review a suicide mitigation report at its Wednesday meeting, which will present more possible permanent solutions, such as the use of non-structural interventions—such a suicide hotline, installing phones or intercoms on the bridge, bridge patrols and pedestrian exclusion— along with the possible installation of wire strands, mesh barriers, nettings and inward-facing picket extensions.

The city’s temporary solution is the subject of some discussion, especially among bridge aficionados and preservationists.

Sue Mossman, director of Pasadena Heritage, said Tuesday, “I think the temporary installation is fine. It’s clear that some workable, respectful and hopefully effective solution needs to be worked out. As this is a temporary measure, as such, it is not.”

Mossman added, “Everyone, including Pasadena Heritage, is very concerned, that this happens, and that there is apparently a recent escalation in this activity, and I think whatever can be done that balances the history and architectural significance and engineering significance of the bridge with whatever can be done to prevent people from using it for this sad purpose, that’s the goal we all share.”

Mossman said she has met with City staff a number of times over the past few months, on the issue and doesn’t think the “perfect solution” has yet been presented.

“It may be a combination of ideas from the report,” she added, “and maybe some new, additional ideas will come forward.”

Some residents who live nearby the bridge recognize the importance of installing the temporary deterrents despite being described as an eyesore by some.

“Obviously we can all agree that we want to try to make sure people are safe and I think most people can agree that what they’re putting up is pretty awful looking, but we also recognize that we are facing some kind of a crisis here,” said West Pasadena Residents Association President Kenyon Harbison.

Some residents have already voiced their criticisms about the new feature, according to Harbison, who also clarified that the Association has not taken a position on the construction of the barriers.

“We’ve already received contact from the community who are upset about the alcove covers,” said Harbison about community members who oppose the barriers. “We’ve also received some expression of support about the covering of the alcoves,” Harbison explained.

The installation of the heavy duty metal posts and mesh fencing appears to be less temporary than what city officials have described, according to Harbison.

“It doesn’t look terribly temporary when they’re drilling holes in the sidewalk and installing fencing using concrete. What we’re concerned about initially is we want to know what the time frame is on the barriers,” explained Harbison.

According to Mayor Tornek, the installation will not leave any permanent damage to the bridge

Today’s situation bears some similarities to the situation city officials faced in the 1930;s.

According to the report being presented tonight at the Public Safety Committee, the City engineers designed a netting deterrent as early as 1932 and fencing was installed in 1938 and was equipped with barbed wire on the top.

Eventually those designs would come and go until the current wrought iron fencing was installed during a seismic retrofit in early 1990’s. The familiar design today, while striking, is easy enough to climb over that it does not prevent distraught individuals from climbing out onto the outside ledge.

“Research has indicated that if you can curb an individual’s initial impulsive attempt that they often realize, even without treatment, that they don’t want to do this,” said City Manager Steve Mermell about the city’s efforts to install the deterrents.

A National study published in January 2017 compared the effectiveness of various structural suicide prevention measures, barriers and netting in particular, according the city’s report.

The study determined a suicide reduction rate of 68.7 percent for barriers, 77.1 percent for netting, and 82.0 percent for complete barriers.

“Anything that we can do to help people take a pause, realize that they are loved and obtain help in the time of crisis is the right move. This is an issue where safety triumphs aesthetics. I’m sure that any permanent solution will, in fact, take into account the historic nature of the Colorado Bridge,” said District 3 Councilmember and Pasadena Vice Mayor John Kennedy.

The urgency of the installation has some people wondering how the city can create a safer bridge while maintaining key aesthetics of some of Pasadena’s iconic architecture.

Nine new homes being built by San Gabriel Valley Habitat for Humanity below the bridge pose another risk for public safety, according to City Manager Mermell.

“When you consider we have residents living below the bridge, who will soon be joined by additional families in new Habitat for Humanity housing, plus a new park and other recreational uses in the Arroyo Seco near the bridge, I felt very strongly that something had to be done now to address this issue,” said City Manager Steve Mermell.

“We are very excited and happy to see the efforts by the city to try and mitigate the jumps from the bridge via these temporary means,” said Habitat For Humanity San Gabriel Valley Executive Director Mark Van Lue. “We have been involved in the conversation with the city to find permanent ways to prevent successful jumps from the bridge and we think that’s better, not just for the community that we’re building below the bridge, but also for the entire Pasadena community.”

City staff are currently researching various alternatives that have been implemented throughout the world as a way to permanently deter and hopefully end suicides on the Colorado Street Bridge.

According to the report, city staff have narrowed down five categories that include non-structural interventions such as crisis hot line phones and bridge patrols, wire strand installations, mesh barriers, netting, and picket extensions.

The report also includes lists of pros and cons as it relates to visual impact, effectiveness, traffic impact, cost and more.

City staff will present their findings on possible permanent measures to help reduce and prevent suicides on the Colorado Street Bridge at the Public Safety Committee Meeting on Wednesday evening.

“We just can’t stand by and allow to this kind of escalate,” said Tornek.

City Council member John Kennedy, who chairs the Public Safety committee, said, “I think the Mayor and the City Manager took the appropriate steps to address what is a tragedy, as individuals make this final choice in terms of resolving issues.”

Kennedy also revealed that a member of his family had recently taken her own life, and said that “Anything we can do to help people take a pause and realize that they are loved and are being helped in a time of crisis, is a right move.”

Anyone experiencing a crisis or knows someone who is can call the 24 hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-(800-784-2433.

The Public Safety Committee meets tonight at 6:00 p.m. in City Council Chambers on City Hall’s second floor at 100 North Garfield Avenue in Pasadena.

For the full agenda, please click here.