MLIVE.COM (MICHIGAN): COUNCIL URGES ACTION TO PREVENT SUICIDES, FALLS FROM PARKING GARAGES
ANN ARBOR, MI – Ann Arbor officials say they want to see swift action taken to prevent more people from jumping or falling from the city’s downtown public parking garages.
The City Council voted unanimously Monday night, Sept. 18, to approve a resolution urging the Downtown Development Authority, which oversees the parking system for the city, to place “the highest priority” on providing physical barriers on parking garages, starting with the levels highest above the ground.
The council is encouraging the DDA to install temporary barriers if permanent structures are delayed for any reason.
If the current year’s DDA budget does not permit immediate action, the resolution states, the council then asks the city administrator to discuss alternate funding sources with the DDA.
The DDA on June 19 received a bid totaling nearly $1.4 million for fabricating and installing fencing on the rooftops of six above-ground parking garages, about $1 million more than expected.
As a result of the high cost, the DDA put the project on hold with plans to seek new bids this winter.
The DDA has been discussing the issue since last year and installed suicide-prevention signs in parking garages this spring.
Five people jumped or fell — including three fatalities — from parking garages in Ann Arbor from November 2015 to December 2016. There were two more fatal jumps or falls this summer, one June 15 at Fourth and William and another Sept. 7 at Fourth and Washington.
The resolution the council approved Monday night encouraging the DDA to do more was co-sponsored by Council Members Jack Eaton, Sumi Kailasapathy, Jane Lumm, and Zachary Ackerman.
Eaton said the bid the DDA received a few months ago was surprisingly high, but he said the city can’t wait to take action. He said people’s lives are too valuable to fritter away time discussing costs.
“I mean, our role as a city government is the health, safety, and welfare of our residents,” he said.
“I understand that the price tag is high. This resolution seeks either interim measures or a cooperation between the city and the DDA to accomplish things in the immediate timeframe.”
The council heard an expert opinion Monday night from John Greden, founder and executive director of the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Depression Center, and founding chairman of the National Network of Depression Centers involving 26 universities across the country. He said fencing can help prevent suicides.
“We’re not here to talk about guns and other approaches, but we are here to address some that we might do something about,” he said. “Physical barriers … such as fencing and screening provide deterrents to these impulsive times. They work. They have been shown to be successful in decreasing suicide rates in high-risk places.”
Greden said that means they save lives.
“Those individuals then have a chance and opportunity to get treatment,” he said. “Signage may help. The data are less clear. We’ve done that; we’ve actually put signage up. More is needed, and I know there are issues because of the issue of cost … but I would just urge council and DDA to stay with this issue and to get back to it at a time whenever we can and to take the steps that are necessary. This is Ann Arbor and we will save lives.”
Ann Arbor resident Peter Eckstein also spoke out before the council, calling for immediate action.
“Frankly, I don’t think it’s more money than this problem deserves, but I think it’s more money than it might require,” he said of the $1.4 million, saying he thinks lower-cost fencing could be installed immediately.
“Let’s stop this epidemic,” he said.
In a Sept. 12 memo to City Administrator Howard Lazarus, DDA Executive Director Susan Pollay offered an update on the DDA’s suicide prevention efforts at public parking garages.
She cited a 2016 report from the International Parking Institute titled “Suicide in Parking Facilities: Prevention, Response and Recovery,” which describes evolving best practices. Of the more than 42,000 deaths by suicide in the country in 2014, Pollay noted the report cited roughly 2 percent as being caused by jumping or falling.
“This includes bridges, as well as parking structures, and most of these parking facilities are associated with the Veterans Administration (VA) and other hospitals, and universities,” she wrote, noting the report outlined prevention measures, such as barriers and signage.
Pollay said the DDA’s staff met last November with representatives from Carl Walker Inc. to discuss the issue. She said Gary Cudney, a senior vice president at the firm, was part of the IPI group that assembled the report, and he shared info and photos from other parking systems.
“It was helpful to see what steps other communities had taken, and to learn about options for the Ann Arbor system,” Pollay wrote. “At this meeting, it was decided that the DDA would explore three elements; signage, management, and fencing.”
To develop language for signage, Pollay said, the DDA’s staff received direction from Washtenaw County’s mental health team and the VA Hospital staff. In April, she said, 80 signs were purchased and hung at rooftop levels of the downtown public parking structures, including phone numbers for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Psychiatric Emergency Services, and Ozone House.
Pollay said the DDA also has worked with Republic Parking, the company hired to manage the parking structures, to address rooftop management, reaffirming a policy of zero tolerance for loitering on structure rooftops. She said Republic Parking staff “pursue all instances where people are not actively walking to or from their vehicles.”
She said the DDA’s staff also has worked with Carl Walker Inc. to develop a plan for fencing.
“Key issues included how tall the fence should be, on what levels the fence should be placed, what material should be used (durability and maintenance considerations), and how the fencing should be attached,” she wrote. “CWI had previously been hired as the engineers for the installation of fencing on top of parking structures in Grand Rapids. In a proposal dated January 5, 2017, CWI outlined a bid process and estimated the cost to fabricate and install fencing on the rooftops of the six above-ground Ann Arbor parking structures to be $369,500.”
On Jan. 9, the DDA accepted the proposal and the firm went to work preparing bid documents and specifications, Pollay said.
“Ten fencing companies were solicited, however only two contractors attended the pre-bid meeting June 9, 2017. On June 19, 2017, only one bid, in the amount of $1,386,446.61, was received,” she wrote.
Pollay said the DDA asked Carl Walker Inc. to follow up with the two companies that attended the pre-bid meeting.
“The company that chose not to submit a bid said they currently had as much work as they could handle,” she wrote.
“The company that did bid explained that they had a full schedule and that fencing costs had gone up,” she added. “Because the only bid received was over a million dollars higher than the engineer’s estimate, the DDA reached out to a restoration contractor regularly hired by the DDA to see if they could bid on the job. Their estimated cost was just under $3M, with most of the cost in the fencing.”
Pollay said all parties involved seem to feel the fencing companies in southeast Michigan currently had too much work to bid new projects.
“This included not only work on private developments, but also big projects such as the Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit,” she wrote.
“Given this response, the project will be rebid again this winter to see if the bidding climate may have cooled enough to encourage more competitive bidding.”
Greden said there’s a lot of data about suicide risks and it’s a growing concern for the country.
“Last year, more than 42,000 people died of suicide in this country. This is Ann Arbor and it’s tragic when we start having some of our youth be among those, and they were,” he said.
Greden said 80 to 90 percent of deaths by suicide are linked with brain mental illnesses.
“They are associated with clinical depressions, anxiety, substance use, sometimes head trauma, but these are illnesses that are treatable,” he said. “When these underlying illnesses are properly treated, the risks for suicide tend to go down. And during times of high risk when they’re not treated and when the illness is running rampant, these are really vulnerable times. Situations that set off thoughts of suicide and how one might do it are really dangerous, and we have some of these now in this community. Parking garages or bridges, understandably, sometimes are identified by such individuals as high risk.”
In Washtenaw County, a total of 64 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died by suicide between 2009 and May 2017, including 17 last year — the highest number of suicides on record for that age group in the county medical examiner’s records dating back to 2004.
“It’s been a year of tremendous loss for our community,” Council Member Julie Grand, D-3rd Ward, said at Monday night’s meeting, saying many families have been affected by recent deaths.
“What we do know about this important public health problem is that it’s becoming more prevalent, that these decisions are not like the stereotypes that we think about people writing notes and having these long thoughts and plans. It really is something that happens that is an impulsive decision and one that we do want to try to create barriers to prevent this from happening,” Grand said.
“We’re seeing it happen at younger and younger ages where it’s not just young adults and high school kids, but even kids in middle school,” she added, noting she’s had conversations with her own children about what to do if a friend talks about hurting themselves.
“And I a few years ago could not really imagine having those conversations that I am having in my own household.”
Council Member Kirk Westphal, D-2nd Ward, said the hardest part of the City Council’s job is looking at health and safety tradeoffs.
He said he’s not an expert on whether money is better spent on counseling versus other interventions such as physical barriers on parking garages, but he hopes the city can continue having a discussion and put its dollars where it really matters.
“I want, too, to thank the DDA for having done a decent amount of work on this already,” said Mayor Christopher Taylor. “They understood that they have a situation that they need engagement and they are engaged. I am glad, too, that the sponsors have brought this resolution forward in light of the situation the DDA found itself in with a bid that was sort of a shocking and surprising bid.”
Taylor said he’s glad the City Council is formally identifying it as an important matter to address.
“The community has been touched by tragedy so many times over the past months and short number of years that it’s important that we take action,” he said. “We’ve heard from experts that this is an action that has the potential to be effective in the most pressing of times, in the most urgent of times, and so I’m glad to be supporting it.”
Copyright © 2017
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