Bay Area officials will build a model of the Golden Gate Bridge suicide net to practice rescue operations

As the long-awaited suicide net project on the Golden Gate Bridge draws to a close, another development has made headway: training on how to safely extract people from the protective barrier.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District approved the $824,000 purchase of a training center near Mill Valley where first responders will train to retrieve people who fall 20 feet into the protective net suicide prevention.

“People who jump are usually discouraged and they’re not always rational,” said Tom Welch, assistant chief of training and operations for Southern Marin’s Fire Protection District, one of the main agencies working on bridge rescues.

“(It) can be risky…we want to make sure we’re doing things that are safe for our staff and for victims.”

Several agencies, including Bay Area first responders, law enforcement, bridge workers, and sometimes the U.S. Coast Guard, work in tandem to perform rescues. Officials say an average of 30 people commit suicide on the bridge each year.

At the new training facility, which is located adjacent to Southern Marin’s existing Fire Protection District training tower, crews will work with a replica of the bridge’s suicide net to simulate various challenges of such a rescue, for example if a person tries to jump from the net into the water or does not want to get out.

People jumping could easily get hurt because of the 20-foot-wide stainless steel net made of four-millimeter stainless steel ropes. All of these scenarios will be practiced and planned for once the facility is operational in about nine months, officials said.

“Obviously when you’re working with heights there’s a risk of falling,” Welch said. “(But) we’re used to working with ropes and high angle saves, so that will be another element of that.”

Construction of the suicide net project began in 2018 and was originally scheduled to be completed in 2021 for $76 million. Over the years, the schedule — the costs — have grown significantly to about $215 million, with completion expected in November 2023, according to district general manager Denis Mulligan. Since the start of the project, labor turnover, legal issues and design challenges have lengthened the project schedule.

Although the district has increased its workforce on the bridge, project delays have still had an impact.

In 2021, 223 people came to the bridge with the intention of harming themselves, Mulligan said. Of these, 198 people were arrested, but 25 people jumped off the bridge. The numbers were similar in 2020, with 213 people on the bridge – 185 of whom were arrested and 28 who jumped into the waters 200 feet below. More than 1,800 people have jumped from the bridge since it opened in 1937.

“Years ago the average person was me, a middle-aged white man. In recent years his trend is younger,” said Mulligan, who said the vast majority of suicides on the bridge were due to the locals. “It’s something that has a profound impact on the community.”

Annie Vainshtein (her) is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @annievain

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