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B.C. crisis centre renews call for suicide prevention fencing on Lions Gate, Granville bridges

Ministry of Transportation: "Unfortunately, the Lions Gate Bridge cannot accommodate suicide barrier/tall safety fencing…"
The Lions Gate Bridge has long been identified by the BC Coroners Service and Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC as needing suicide prevention fencing.

Warning: This story talks about suicide and may be distressing to some readers. Available resources are available at the bottom of the article.

It’s just after 8 p.m. on a busy Wednesday night for Vancouver’s patrol officers.

A call comes over the radio from a person saying her friend’s ex-boyfriend plans to jump off the Lions Gate Bridge.

Police mobilize and begin to search for the man, whose cellphone is “pinged” by the dispatcher to help with location.

Seven units from Vancouver are on the call, including an officer dispatched to the caller’s location. Officers from West Vancouver and North Vancouver join the search for the man.

The call, which occurred in March 2023, ends well, with officers finding the man on the bridge and taking him to hospital.

It was the best outcome, police said at the time, considering the man’s intention.

The BC Coroners Service and the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC know such a call could have gone the other way. That’s why they have called for several years for suicide prevention fencing on the Lions Gate and other Metro Vancouver bridges.

The Coroners Service’s recommendation dates back to its annual report of 2008 when it said the Lions Gate, Granville, Ironworkers, the Burrard and Pattullo bridges should be retrofitted with barriers or netting to prevent suicides.

The recommendation was partly prompted by concerns from the “child death review unit” of the Coroners Service, which noted a significant proportion of suicide deaths occurred in people under 30 years old.

The Lions Gate alone saw 45 suicide deaths between 1991 and 2007. More have occurred since then, with government statistics showing another 33 people died between 2007 and 2013.

More recent statistics were not available at deadline.

$50M upgrade to Granville Bridge

Since the Coroners Service recommendation in 2008, fencing was installed on the Burrard and Ironworkers bridges.

The other bridges remain without fencing, with the Granville Bridge recently in the news because of an Independent Investigations Office review of the VPD’s connection to an attempted suicide from the span.

Mariners working at Granville Island have also called for fencing.

The bridge is currently undergoing a $50-million upgrade, but the city will not spend the estimated $10 million to $20 million to add fencing.

The city’s communications department told Glacier Media via an email that fencing is in the long-range plans for the bridge, but that emergency call boxes will be installed by next year.

The Lions Gate, meanwhile, will not see fencing anytime soon.

'Structural instability to the bridge'

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure explained in an email June 11 that the reason is not related to cost, but design.

The statement first said the ministry “takes this issue seriously” and is working with local enforcement agencies, local crisis management centre and other stakeholders “to ensure everything possible is done to address suicide prevention.”

“Unfortunately, the Lions Gate Bridge cannot accommodate suicide barrier/tall safety fencing, as any additional barrier or fencing could result in structural instability to the bridge,” the ministry said.

The ministry added that through its Transportation Management Centre, it can monitor pedestrian activity on the bridges and work with emergency responders to prevent incidents.

Emergency call boxes have been installed on the Lions Gate, Alex Fraser, Port Mann and Ironworkers Memorial bridges, the ministry said.

“These connect to an operator 24/7 should a person be in crisis,” the ministry said.

“They have proven to be effective in preventing suicides. Tall safety fencing or similar barriers/deterrents are a consideration on all new major structures to be built in the Lower Mainland.”

Vancouver police statistics for suicide or mental health-related calls to the Lions Gate in 2023 show officers responded 49 times. Police attended the Granville Bridge 38 times in 2023, with Burrard (22) and Cambie (14) rounding out the top bridge calls.

The statistics do not provide details of the incidents, or the outcomes.

But Stacy Ashton, executive director of the Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of BC, said she is not aware of a suicide from the Burrard Bridge since fencing was installed in 2016.

'Millions and millions of dollars'

The fact that emergency call boxes are also on the bridge has made a difference, said Ashton, saying the Crisis Centre received 152 calls in the past five years from the Burrard Bridge.

“And we were able to resolve all of those safely,” she said, emphasizing the need for both fencing and phones on a bridge.

“What you're able to do is you're creating that pause, and then there's immediate access to help. But immediate access to help doesn't really get used as much without that pause.”

Ashton cited a Toronto Public Health report from 2018 that examined interventions to prevent suicides from bridges.

The report, which referenced academic studies on the topic, showed restricting access to a person’s means to die by suicide from a bridge was associated with a 93 per cent reduction in deaths per year.

Fencing on bridges should be mandatory and part of a national plan to be prevent suicides, said Ashton, noting the quoted cost of $10 million to $20 million from the City of Vancouver regarding the Granville Bridge has to be put into context.

“When we look at the calls that we de-escalate that would have otherwise required a police response [city-wide], we're thinking we're saving Vancouver in the area of $15 million a year, based on their own reporting on how much it costs to respond to a mental health emergency,” she said.

In addition, Ashton added, the upgrade to the Granville Bridge will free up four development parcels of city-owned land. That money will be used to fund redevelopment of the Granville Bridge, and should be used to cover the costs of suicide barriers, she said.

“They’re sitting on millions and millions of dollars,” said Ashton, noting her research shows 34 suicides from the bridge between 2007 and 2019.

'Option in the future'

As for the Lions Gate Bridge, she understands the ministry’s position, but believes there are engineers who could come up with a solution. She suggested government or an agency initiate a contest to attract the brightest minds in engineering to develop barriers for the bridge.

“Honestly, I think it would be great to have somebody put up $100,000 and get a bunch of engineers to compete to fix it,” she said.

The Toronto Public Health report from 2018, which consulted City of Vancouver staff and other engineers in the province, said “advances in barrier/net design and technology will likely increase opportunities to implement this option in the future” on the Lions Gate.

Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts of suicide, help is available.

• In an emergency, call 9-1-1

• In a crisis, call 1-800-784-2433

• In need of support, call 310-6789 (no area code needed)

You can find a full list of resources on the B.C. government’s website.

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