According to the Public Affairs Office for the Golden Gate
Bridge, there have been about 20-35 suicides a year since 2000 and a total of
more than 1,400 since the bridge’s first suicide in 1937. Mary Currie, public
affairs director for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation
District, reported that, “We stop about 80 percent of the people who come to
the bridge to hurt themselves.”
For the other 20 percent, as most negotiators realize, they
were extremely committed on acting on their suicidal ideations. For the others,
negotiators know these are people seeking help and persuasion to live.
As negotiators, it is important to act quickly, safely,
attentively and with an extreme sense of compassionate resolve when addressing
a suicidal “jumper.” Although the tenants of suicide intervention are extremely
important, there must be emphasis on understanding and empathy when dealing
with the jumper in conjunction with a conscious effort on personal safety as well
as pre-planning for the jumper’s return from the ledge.
As someone who has supervised over 20 events involving a
bridge jumper, I’ve noticed a number of commonalities in the process of
negotiating with a suicidal individual who is threatening to jump. The most
noteworthy and pertinent scenario destined for success is the presence of the
suicidal jumper upon arrival of the negotiators. For someone who has a
commitment to end their life, police involvement is typically an effort to
recover the actor’s body.
For those who have not committed to the act or who have the
slightest doubt, the negotiator will have a high statistical probability of
success with convincing the jumper to reconsider his/her choice.
When approaching a jumper, it is important to perform an
introduction from an empathetic position and to communicate in the sequence
commonly referred to as the “Stairway of Behavior Change.” One should move
through the behavioral change steps (active listening – empathy – rapport
building – influence – behavioral change) deliberately and effectively in order
for the final act of convincing the jumper to live.
An important consideration when first approaching a jumper
to negotiate is gauging their level of comfort as to your physical proximity to
him/her. The “John Wayne” style of gaining a position to try to tackle the
jumper or pull him off the ledge is a high-risk maneuver that has seen a low level
of success in two regards: a loss of trust between the negotiator and the
jumper, and the potential of not only the jumper falling, but the negotiator
falling as well.
Therefore, there is a need for a “safety first” protocol and
the use of safety harnesses whenever possible. Remember, your priority is to
resolve the situation with your safety and the safety of those involved. I
would encourage training and practice with harnesses as part of in-service
instruction with your local fire department or emergency services unit in
preparation for jumper scenarios.
An important question to ask in the initial stages of your
suicidal intervention consists of, “What has happened in the last day or two to
make you want to hurt yourself and why today?” Although you may not get to the
answer quickly, the use of Active Listening Skills and empathetic responses
will ultimately lead to the trust for the jumper to identify the catalyst for
his/her suicidal behavior.
Once that information is gained, you can begin to work with
the jumper to develop alternatives to suicide. Let the jumper provide the
possible alternatives—even the bad ones—and work toward identifying the least
objectionable one. Develop a specific plan to achieve the most realistic
In my experience, the subject’s ultimate request involves
such things as: smoking a cigarette, having a drink, eating a sandwich,
arranging to talk to a loved one once off the ledge, or a variation of the
aforementioned. Once off the ledge, it is equally important to honor a
reasonable request prior to final custody. Many jumpers are repeat
The easy part to the jumper is the negotiation itself in
comparison with managing the incident. The difficulty of any jumper scenario
consists of crowd management issues, police managers who are impatient with the
negotiations process and the presence of a large response of emergency
personnel and equipment. At every scene, it is important to isolate the jumper
to prevent onlookers from passive or active interference.
I recall supervising one scene where a crowd was too close
to the suicidal jumper and they were actively enticing him to leap to his
death. The location should be clear of all onlookers, as well as unnecessary
law enforcement, EMS or fire personnel. They should all be out of sight. The
phenomena known as a “Circus Mentality” will exist when the emergency equipment
is so close that it detracts from the negotiation and the suicidal person’s
effort to de-stress.
Your Incident Commander should be made aware of the need to
isolate the jumper as much as possible from sight and sound of people,
emergency equipment and personnel.
Lastly, for the police management officials on scene asking how long the
negotiation will last, your response should always remain respectfully, “As
long as it takes.”
According to FBI statistics via HOBAS, 90 percent of
suicidal events reach conclusion within six hours. Each incident is unique and
your Hostage Team Commander should take the role of advising the Incident
Commander of the progress of the intervention.
Remember the negotiation basics when dealing with a suicidal
individual. The unique and important variable with a jumper involves
face-to-face negotiations with someone who feels hopeless and helpless. This is
a very dangerous scenario. However, if you stay true to the suicide
intervention process and remain cognizant of the safety and security issues,
you will yield a successful conclusion.
Don’t be in a hurry to resolve the situation. As you know,
you will be addressing a person in crisis who has taken months or years to get
to a suicidal state. You will need to build upon rapport and trust before ever
getting to a state of willingness to change behavior. In the end, the jumper
wants to be saved by you.
Samuel A. Farina is
the President of New York Association of Hostage Negotiators. He may be reached