Prevention program starts two years after pledge

The 39-year-old McLean man who jumped in front of a packed train at Clarendon station on the Orange Line a week ago remained alive Monday, hospitalized in intensive care with critical injuries including head trauma and broken bones.

He is one of 24 people who have been hit by Metro trains in suicide attempts since January 2009, according to agency figures. At least three others have jumped to their deaths from Metro parking garages in the past two years.

Need Help?
The American Association of Suicidology says the best intervention comes before a person heads to the subway. The group urges friends, family and co-workers to take seriously warning signs that include:
» Increased alcohol or drug use
» No reason for living or lack of sense of purpose
» Anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
» Withdrawal from friends, family and society
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's toll-free number, 800-273-TALK (8255), for direct help or guidance on how to intervene.

Metro, which has become a target for people who want to end their lives, has started training workers on how to intervene before suicidal riders get to the tracks. It also plans an outreach campaign to help distressed riders. But it has been slow to begin such efforts, despite promising to reach out two years ago and setting aside $250,000 for the work.

In September 2009, after two teens killed themselves days apart, Metro said it planned to partner with a regional coalition of suicide prevention groups to stop a spike in deaths first reported by The Washington Examiner. Yet it changed plans and missed various deadlines.

In September 2010, the board of directors approved $250,000 to be spent on prevention efforts, approving a one-year program with two one-year options.

This summer, nearly two years after the initial pledge, the agency began training workers. Metro has trained about 160 station managers and train operators out of about 960 workers in those positions, said spokesman Dan Stessel.

It also plans to post suicide hotline numbers in rail stations next year, he said.

The training teaches workers to pay attention to riders pacing back and forth, looking nervous or sweating, walking close to the edge or checking out the station, then coming back again.

Metro is trying to accelerate the training to get more of the frontline workers through the two-hour session, Stessel said. It also hopes to include the prevention training in the re-certification classes that rail workers take every two years.

"If someone is determined to do harm to themselves, there's nothing you can do to stop them," he added. "That said, we hope the training will lead to intervention."

Some train operators and station managers have been able to save riders' lives. One station manager stopped a man on Christmas Eve in 2008, convincing him to climb back onto the platform from the tracks.

The suicide attempts -- and deaths -- have untold costs for Metro, its riders and its workers. In the short term, the attempts delay thousands of commuters as happened last Tuesday when rail service was shut down on the Orange Line at rush hour. But they also frequently traumatize the train operators whose trains hit the riders, plus the medical workers and clean-up crews, with some needing counseling and medical leave.