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After years of advocacy, a ‘huge first step’ toward suicide prevention barriers on R.I. bridges

At least nine people have committed suicide by jumping from Rhode Island bridges since November

The Mount Hope Bridge, opened in 1929, connects the Rhode Island towns of Bristol and Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
The Mount Hope Bridge, opened in 1929, connects the Rhode Island towns of Bristol and Portsmouth, Rhode Island.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority is seeking proposals to study putting suicide prevention barriers on the state’s most iconic bridges.

Nearly 3,000 people have signed an online petition in support of legislation requiring “a safety barrier and/or safety netting on the Mount Hope Bridge, the Claiborne Pell Bridge, and the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge.”

And the action, which follows years of advocacy, comes as Bristol’s Bryan Ganley, co-founder of Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing, is warning that nine people “that we know about” have committed suicide by jumping from those Rhode Island bridges since November.

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“It tells me every minute we are not doing this, that more people are at risk,” Ganley told the Globe. “Stop talking and make it happen.”

He said he has been advocating for barriers on Rhode Island bridges since 1985, and he is glad to hear that the Turnpike and Bridge Authority has issued a request for proposals.

“I am ecstatic,” Ganley said Wednesday. “This is a huge first step.”

Lori C. Silveira, executive director of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, said the authority issued the request on July 14, seeking proposals from qualified consulting firms to perform a “conceptual study and analysis” of suicide prevention measures for the Jamestown Verrazzano, Claiborne Pell, Mount Hope, and Sakonnet River bridges.

The proposals are due back by Sept. 3, and the award of the contract will be “subject to funding,” Silveira said.

“We wanted to solicit proposals for a study to inform the decision making process as we examine whether and what type of preventative measures could safely be deployed on the bridges,” she said in a statement.

DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, and Representative Joseph J. Solomon Jr., a Warwick Democrat, introduced legislation requiring suicide prevention barriers on three of those bridges by Jan. 1, 2023.

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Those bills ended up being “held for further study” during the legislative session that ended on July 1. But DiPalma said he and Solomon expect that the issue will continue to be discussed when the General Assembly reconvenes – whether in a special fall session or next year’s regularly scheduled session.

Funding for the projects could come from the federal government, perhaps from the nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal that’s now the subject of intense negotiations, he said.

DiPalma said he and Solomon might amend the legislation to focus on the design of the barriers for the three bridges. He estimates the cost to analyze and design barriers for the three bridges will be about $1.5 million.

“It’s a case of bite-sized chunks,” he said. “Before we can build anything, we have to analyze the design. I would like to thank the Turnpike and Bridge Authority for getting out in front of this very important issue.”

DiPalma said the value of suicide prevention barriers is becoming evident in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Sunshine Skyway Bridge has ranked among the deadliest in the nation for suicides since 1987.

Over the past decade, that bridge has seen an average of one suicide per month. But in January, crews began installing diamond-patterned steel netting attached to posts on the bridge’s barrier wall. Since the $3.41-million project began, there have been no suicides from the bridge, and officials are giving some credit to the recently completed suicide prevention barrier, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

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“It has shown to be a deterrent,” DiPalma said. “As an engineer, it’s a case of asking: Is it doing what it’s supposed to do, and the answer is ‘yes.’ The evidence is there.”

DiPalma agrees with those who emphasize the need to provide mental health services to address the root causes of suicides. But, he said, “We need to do both. We need treatment in the community, and we need to take away this venue where many people have taken their lives.”

Denise Panichas, executive director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, said the value of suicide prevention barriers is also evident closer to home – on Cape Cod.

She noted that, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, barriers placed on the Sagamore and Bourne bridges have succeeded in lowering the number of suicides from those spans, and there have been no suicides reported to the Army Corps of Engineers from those bridges since 2013.

“The Army Corps of Engineers don’t do their work frivolously and they are telling us the barriers on the Bourne and Sagamore work,” Panichas said. “For Rhode Island, while clearly each bridge is unique, we are the creative state, and if we could put a man on the moon, if we can find things on the bottom of the ocean, there should be no excuse for someone to be able to fall off a bridge.”

For this project, Panichas said, “What I’m looking for is creativity, innovation, cost effectiveness, and a little humanity. The rest of the world is watching. It will be historic.”

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Ganley rejects the argument that people will simply find another way to take their lives. “That’s the biggest myth on the planet,” he said. “If someone was holding a loaded gun, you wouldn’t say ‘Don’t bother taking the gun away from them – they will find another way to do it.’ Those bridges are loaded guns. We need to take that gun away.”

Ganley also rejects the argument that barriers will ruin the view from the bridges. The Tampa Bay Times article quotes an official saying the marine-grade netting on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge “would be almost invisible” to motorists. “It really disappears against the sky and water,” the official said.

Those who have lost family members to suicide from the bridges want to see action, Ganley said. “It won’t bring back their loved ones, but no more people will be lost to these unprotected bridges,” he said. “The goal is to make these bridges safe once and for all.”

You can reach The Samaritans of Rhode Island at (401) 272-4044, toll free in Rhode Island at (800) 365-4044, or go to samaritansri.org. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-Talk (8255).


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.