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French King Bridge to get cameras

GILL — The state Department of Transportation will begin pursuing video monitoring and possible fencing of the French King Bridge, at the behest of local officials concerned for the safety of police and firefighters called to respond to reported suicides.

Spanning the Connecticut River and the border between the towns of Gill and Erving, the state-owned bridge is a scenic stop and suicide destination.

The chairmen of the Gill and Erving boards of selectmen, the police chiefs of both towns and Montague, the Gill fire chief, the commander of the Shelburne Falls State Police barracks, State Rep. Denise Andrews and two representatives form the Northampton office of the state Department of Transportation met for an hour Tuesday afternoon in the Gill Town Hall.

Gill Selectboard Chairman Randy Crochier recently began a push for suicide prevention measures at the scenic bridge, particularly a net or fence barrier. A first effort, signs went up last month with the number for the Samaritans suicide hotline, 877-870-4673.

An hour’s discussion Tuesday afternoon between local officials and the controlling agency resulted in an agreement to install cameras and started the ball rolling toward a fence or net barrier, a process to begin with public hearings and not likely for years.

Barriers and cameras were discussed primarily as a means to improve response and protect responders.

Crochier requested the meeting through Andrews over concerns he felt first as the father of a former Gill firefighter who was among those called to search the river in sometimes dangerous conditions following reported jumps.

“I have concerns about people who jump from the bridge, but I also have concerns about the manpower it takes ... we’re risking the lives of many people,” Crochier said.

State Police Lt. James Penniman, station commander of the Shelburne Falls barracks and in charge of the state crisis negotiation squad, said barriers will not save people from killing themselves but could protect first responders.

“They will not lower the suicide rate in the area, but they will lower the suicide rate off the bridge,” said State Police Lt. James Penniman of the barriers. Penniman is station commander of the Shelburne Falls barracks and the state crisis negotiation squad.

Erving Police Chief Christopher Blair asked for the cameras, possibly to stream video to dispatchers in neighboring Montague — the nearest 24-hour department. Blair and Gill Police Chief David Hastings recounted numerous instances of suicide hoaxes and false alarms. Blair said people have left cars, keys and suicide notes and left the area in another car or hidden in the woods to watch the emergency response. Bungee jumping and parachuting have scared witnesses who believed they were seeing a death.

None present had definitive numbers for responses to the bridge or deaths and serious injuries.

According to rough figures gleaned from The Recorder’s archives, a minimum of 30 people have killed themselves in jumping from the French King Bridge since its construction in 1932, two this year, and at least five people have survived suicide attempts or misguided thrill jumps.

Crochier said there have been eight confirmed jumps since June of 2009 and a few others possible. “The numbers are certainly not indicative of what’s there, it’s certainly more,” Hastings said.

“In the ten years I’ve been chief it’s been a pretty consistent one to three a year killing themselves,” Blair said.

About six are taken to the hospital from the bridge for an evaluation and 20 more call in a suicide threat and have to be found elsewhere.

A video recording ready for review would let police and firefighters know quickly what to prepare for and adjust their response to the situation.

“There’s times we don’t know if somebody jumped,” Blair said. “Cameras would be a short-term solution for a lot.”

Al Stegemann, DOT District Highway Director for the I-91 corridor, said installing cameras would only be a matter of finding money to do it, and could be done in half a year.

Andrews told Stegemann to contact her about funding, saying the governor is looking for “shovel-ready” projects at the end of his last term.

Stegemann said it is the DOT’s policy not to record video with its cameras but to stream live, so the solution would be to turn the cameras over to the town.

DOT District Project Development Engineer Rich Masse presented barrier possibilities, metal fences installed on major highway bridges over the Taunton River in Somerset and Fall River, the Quinapoxet River in Holden and West Boylston and the Annisquam River in Gloucester. The first two cost $214 and $125 dollars per foot. The French King is 782 feet long. There was no cost estimate for the last, a 10-12 metal rod fence built to match the look of the old bridge’s iron railing and the more likely model, he said. Stegemann said nets slung under bridges are expensive and a very involved design process.

”I don’t think we should totally disregard netting just because of cost,” said Erving Board of Selectmen’s Chairman William Bembury, pointing to a report of a man prevented from killing himself by likely inexpensive net meant to catch construction debris.

Crochier said he has already received one letter from a couple concerned for the view.

“It’s a beautiful bridge. I don’t want to say it’s not, but it has become a public nuisance because it’s a destination bridge for people to jump off of,” Crochier said. “I’ll be the first one to say that’s a beautiful area ... but it’s incumbent on us to do something to slow it down.”

The DOT representatives also said they will have the catwalk under the bridge blocked.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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