Expanding the Fire-Rescue Mission: Attempted Suicide Response and Intervention

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The City of Atlanta is a thriving, bustling, urbanized community. Being the home of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as well as boasting a comprehensive interstate highway and rail network has often earned us the nickname “Crossroads of the South.â€

A new rescue challenge, however, has emerged in Atlanta, which typically plays out on or near our limited-access/high-speed interstate highways. About two times per month, the Atlanta Fire-Rescue Communications Center dispatches a technical rescue assignment for a suicide attempt in progress: “Jumper on the interstate.†This article discusses the preparation; planning, training and resources needed to respond to this emerging and escalating situation.

Eye-Opening Case Study

After attending the Saturday morning activities of a major EMS conference held in Atlanta, I headed south to catch a flight out of Hartsfield-Jackson. I had timed my commute to allow for a meeting with an old fire service friend who was passing through our airport. It was several weeks before the Christmas holiday and the reunion was a most welcomed one.

As I merged onto Interstate 75/85 Southbound in downtown Atlanta, I observed a perplexing situation that would prove to be a little difficult to comprehend. Wearing a dark-blue uniform, a young police officer was shutting down the interstate by flagging down the 60-mph traffic. At first, I thought that I was driving into a “new†(just occurred) accident scene. As the policewoman got control over a lane of traffic, a marked police cruiser would move into place, establishing a traffic lane barricade. As each lane of vehicles was stopped, another police cruiser would position to block the interstate. In just a few minutes, all six lanes of the downtown section of the interstate highway were closed off and controlled by Atlanta Police.

Unable to locate any crashed vehicles, I changed my size-up to consider the possibility that a VIP’s motorcade was enroute to downtown Atlanta. Since the police cruisers were deployed down the entrance ramp, traveling in the wrong (opposing traffic) direction, I incorrectly surmised that some VIP was headed into the city (the time frame was just before the national elections and all of the candidates were visiting Atlanta).

After all the lanes had been shut down, I ended up being the first car in line next to one of the police vehicles. In hopes that the traffic would be quickly turned loose and not wanting to complain about the delay or abandon my vehicle, I simply waited. After about 20 to 30 minutes of delay, I was getting a little nervous about my time in getting to the airport to enjoy my pre-flight visit. I decided to get out of my car, identify myself and determine the projected length of time that the freeway would be closed.

When I asked the police officer how long he expected the highway to be shut down he said he was not sure of the timeline of the closure and pointed to the top of the 40-foot-high retaining wall. Perched atop of that wall was a gentleman that was threatening to jump to his death on to the highway below. Realizing the magnitude of this situation, I asked the officer if the fire department had been called. His answer sounded something like “that would be a good idea.â€

And so began yet another long-duration and resource-intensive rescue standby operation for the Atlanta Fire-Rescue Department. As the “interstate jumpers†have become a regular occurrence, we at Atlanta Fire-Rescue have had to develop plans, training and resources to effectively respond to and resolve this type of incident.

The Plan

Due to the steady diet of “jumper†calls, we have successfully built a closer relationship with the Atlanta Police Department. As a result of this relationship, duties and responsibilities have been clearly defined for each first-response agency. The Atlanta Police Department is the “lead agency†and therefore in charge of the overall scene. The area of concentration for Atlanta Fire-Rescue is rescue and interventions. In addition, we assist with traffic management when necessary and possible.

It seems like most of the “jumpers†don’t follow through with the threat of making a fatal leap. More times than not, this situation becomes the basic recipe for high-angle rope-rescue operations. However, before we start the process of conducting a high-angle rescue, we activate an important intervention. With the help of Atlanta Police Department, we now have two specialized units.

Perhaps the most important part of the plan is to provide for the safety of responders. The scene must be cleared and controlled by the police ensuring that no weapons are available to the distraught customer.

The Equipment

Within the past year, Atlanta Fire-Rescue placed “Air Bag 2†(Lakewood area) and “Air Bag 21†(Buckhead area) in service. Each unit contains a device that is best described as a “stunt†air cushion and measures 20 by 20 feet, covering an area of 400 square feet. Two 16-inch electric fans that generate 5,000 cubic feet of air per minute inflate the airbag. Each airbag is certified to protect a person falling from up to 100 feet, or 10 stories. Typically, it takes about 10 minutes to set and inflate the air bag, not withstanding extenuating circumstances.

One of the most difficult issues that our companies face at a “jumper†alarm is traffic congestion. For that reason, close radio coordination with on-scene police is required to guide the fire-rescue assets to the scene in an efficient and effective manner.

As the incident unfolds and the situation requires the aforementioned high-angle rescue, Atlanta has two resources to call upon for this level of expertise. We are fortunate enough to operate a heavy rescue company in the likes of Squad 4. This unit was established in 1983 and the remarkable rescue services provided has been legendary and often to our city. Another resource that we can use is the newly formed and “hurricane-tested†Georgia Search and Rescue Task Force 6 (also known as “Six in the Cityâ€). Both of these highly specialized units are skilled and capable of handling just about any type of rope-related rescue operation. When the system can allow it, both units operate together at making one of the most functional teams that I have ever witnessed operate.

The Training

The last component of the utilization of our rescue airbag system is the training that is required to keep everyone sharp in the set up and use of the devices. The first step was to train the stations where the two bags were assigned. Next, every company in both battalions (Fifth and Sixth Battalions) has now been trained in every aspect which includes vehicle operations (towing and backing trailers and setting up the bag).

The application and tactics are a little more difficult to acquire. Size-up and collaboration with the on-scene police commander seems to be the most important inputs. Some of the indicators that impact the operation are obvious, such as a weapon being involved and requiring “hard cover,†or no application of the bag if it is too dangerous.

In one case, “Air Bag 21†was requested to respond to a neighboring community. Once on location, the Atlanta Fire-Rescue crew was told that the person threatening to jump from the third floor of an apartment house was wielding two handguns. The crew moved the bulk of the equipment into position, but was unable to place and inflate the bag because the situation was not under control. At another scene, the police were unsure whether the “jumper†had a weapon. The airbag was inflated out of the person’s sight and then placed into position on the orders of the police commander when the person was distracted and not paying attention to the operation. This method provides the greatest level of “hard cover†for the responders and did not agitate the already distraught person. The process of completing as much of the preparation work as possible out of the sight of the “jumper†is now the way we operate whenever possible to best protect our people.

Our next biggest challenge will be to sustain the training and experience levels over time. As well, Atlanta Fire-Rescue will closely watch technology changes that may improve this frequently used, critical-function service.

Summary

As community needs and situations change, that change becomes the signal requiring fire-rescue departments to look at a wide variety of solutions. The desire to be useful and prevent harm to the community leads the department to take on these new duties and responsibilities.

To date, at least one life as been saved as a direct result of the deployment of jumper airbag system. Hopefully, attempted suicides will be reduced or prevented through mental health support services. In the meantime, the implementation of this system fills a void and makes another fire-rescue service available to our community.

Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to Chief Concerns, Firehouse Magazine, 3 Huntington Quadrangle, Suite 301N, Melville, NY 11747 or to editors@Firehouse.com, with “Chief Concerns†in the subject line.


Dennis L. Rubin, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the Atlanta Fire-Rescue Department. Previously, he was city manager and public safety director for the City of Dothan, AL. Rubin is a 33-year fire-rescue veteran, serving in many capacities and with several departments. He holds an associate’s degree in fire science from Northern Virginia Community College and a bachelor’s degree in fire science from the University of Maryland, and is enrolled in the Oklahoma State University Graduate School Fire Administration Program. Rubin is a 1993 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds the national Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification and the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). He serves on several IAFC committees, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. Rubin can be reached at Firerube@aol.com.

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