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Taking Steps to Help Prevent Suicides in Hotels

Taking Steps to Help Prevent Suicides in Hotels

On July 20, 1995, comic book writer George Caragonne checked into the Marriott Marquis in New York City intent on taking his own life. The despondent comic book writer asked a bellman if the Marquis was the highest building in the area. Assured that it was, he rode a glass elevator to the 45th floor and walked onto an atrium balcony. As he hoisted his leg over the railing, a housekeeper frantically called to him, “Get off of there!” He did.

Reports say Caragonne fell 500 feet before hitting a glass elevator shaft and landing at the base. The New York Daily News estimated Caragonne’s body traveled at 100 mph before it made landing. The report gave credit to a bellman who efficiently ushered guests away from the scene and to staffers who quickly used blankets to block the grizzly sight. “They handled this pretty professionally,” one bystander was quoted as saying.

Motels and hotels—from modest rooms to the most luxurious suites—are among the “lethal locations” described by suicide researcher Steven Stack, Ph.D., of Wayne State University, Detroit. “Lethal locations include any place, such as a hotel room, where there is no one around—like a loved one—to intervene and stop a suicide,” he explains. Even a resort full of vacationers, a high-rise bustling with business travelers, or a motel filled with weekend holiday-makers does not discourage a deadly sense of despair hidden behind a single locked door.

In recent years, architectural interest in soaring urban hotels with dizzying layer-cake-like atriums has provided an attractive feature for another sort of suicidal personality.

“When I was a property-level director of a large atrium hotel, I brought in a team of suicidologists to conduct staff training,” says Chad Callaghan, security consultant to AH&LA and founder of Premises Liability Consultants. “They say there are at least two types of people who commit suicide in hotels—those who are despondent, go to their room, and swallow pills or hang or shoot themselves, and a second type—those who are angry and want to sensationalize their deaths. They are the jumpers; we had two while I was at that atrium hotel.”

Some hotels have attracted more than their fair share. A rudimentary web search turns up multiple suicide jumps from the sky-high atrium of the New York Marriott Marquis. A rash of such deaths unfolded after the suicide of Caragonne, and according to Callaghan, dealing with the aftermath of multiple suicide jumpers became such a sore spot for the Times Square property that over $1 million was spent to construct artistic metal barriers just to prevent deadly leaps. After all, the “aftermath” is considerable. It includes sealing off affected areas, which can be highly conspicuous in a large lobby; dealing with police, coroner, bystanders, traumatized guests, and staff; rebating guests who were witnesses; calling for medical attention for anyone injured by the falling body; defending against the inevitable lawsuits to follow; controlling public relations fallout; and the actual cleaning of blood, bones, and associated biohazards.
And clearly, that is not a job for the housekeeping staff. “It’s time-consuming and costly when there are blood-borne pathogens,” Callaghan says. “We called on professional crime-scene cleaners. Thank God they exist.”

Neal Smither, owner of Crime Scene Cleaners Inc., headquartered in San Francisco, says his company performs suicide cleanups at hotel chains—his biggest clients—across the country. “The hotbed region—most active with hotel suicides—is the corridor running from Alabama up to the Virginias,” he says, adding that Las Vegas is also rife with in-hotel deaths.
“We’ve done every kind of hotel suicide you can imagine,” Smither says. “Hangings, firearms, knives, dope—there is not a manner of death I haven’t seen. I saw someone in a hotel who died by sulfuric acid—swallowed it. Last week I was called to a hotel where a man checked in just to blow his brains out. His new shotgun box was still on the bed. It took nine hours to scrub down the walls and repaint them.” Smither also has cleaned jump scenes. “With that kind of energy involved, a body explodes when it hits the floor,” he says.

While most large hotel chains have protocols in place for handling suicides, smaller hotels often do not. They would be wise to take a lesson from their larger counterparts, Smither says. “Hotels where I worked had a system in place: We recorded the event, called the police, called the coroner, removed the body, contracted for cleanup, and inventoried the person’s personal effects and turned them over to police. Employees were trained to simply back out of the room and call for security if they found a body. After all, it could be suicide, but it could also be homicide, a natural death, or someone just unconscious.”

‘A Juggling Act’
Efi Patt is a risk management consultant at iJet, a global operational, travel, risk management, and intelligence company that handles about 250 hotel assessments and risk audits every year. “When I look at security procedures and crisis management, I want to see how hotels balance between security and preventing suicide and other events. Hotels must take into account fire regulations and other safety procedures while maintaining a welcoming and open environment for the public. After all, this is the hospitality business. It’s a juggling act.”

So while it might seem both obvious and suicide-preventative to lock exits to high ledges or seal doors to some hallways, it may not be allowable under certain fire and safety codes.

What, then, can a hotel really do to prevent the tragedy of suicide?

“Plenty,” Patt says. “I’m talking about early detection of potentially problematic guests. They might come without a reservation, without luggage, and pay in cash; that’s a clear red flag of someone who might have an immediate agenda—it could be suicide. Watch for guests displaying signs of agitation or extreme nervousness. If something seems amiss with how guests interact, try to communicate with them and draw out more information—something important might surface.” (See “Signs of Concern” above for more indications of trouble.)

Asked for his top suicide prevention strategy, Callaghan suggests a physical alteration to hotel properties. “Make sure windows only open four inches, wide enough to allow a breath of fresh air but not wide enough for someone to jump out,” he says. “That would be my No. 1 tip.”

Patt also recommends blocking access to rooftops, machinery rooms, and storage areas of chemicals or sharps of any type. “Common sense should be the driver,” he says, reminding that evacuation routes and emergency stairwells must remain open. As for atrium safety, some hotels are installing sheer netting that does not restrict the view but does support the weight of a falling body.

Overall situational awareness is the key to prevention, Patt says. “There must be a mechanism within hotels for staff to recognize signs of distress or problems and report them to central positions—security manager, office manager, general manager. If several signs merit concern about a guest, call in the authorities. It should be a requirement to take note of potential danger and take action. A hotel’s main focus must be looking after the well-being of the guest—individually and collectively—not just the property.”

Whether for the purpose of industry excellence or humanitarian interest, properties must sharpen their skills at preventing and dealing with tragic events on site. In the end, it is not only a hallmark of good business and an assurance for optimum guest experience but also a strategy for preserving the most precious of commodities—life.

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