Three of the four crisis hotline phones installed on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge two years ago — marked with signs that read “You are not alone” — were out of order the same day that authorities were searching the river for a possible body.
State workers checked the phones just hours after a vehicle was reported abandoned in the middle of the bridge at about 3:30 a.m. Friday. Two Marine Patrol boats and a drone from Down East Emergency Medicine Institute, an Orono-based search and rescue organization, later were searching the water.
“We are looking for a possible individual,” said Jeff Nichols, spokesman for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “There was a vehicle left on the bridge and there is a possibility a subject may have gone into the water.”
A Maine Department of Transportation spokesman said the agency has had trouble with the phones for months and that Friday morning only one of the four phones was working. There are two phones on each end of the bridge.
“After the winter, we’ve been having intermittent issues with the phones,” Maine Department of Transportation spokesman Ted Talbot said. “As of last week, all four were working. As of today, only one of the phones, one on the Verona side, is working. We’re calling the vendor to come fix the issue. We take this very seriously.”
After the problems with the phones were discovered earlier this year, monitoring was increased from once a month to weekly, Talbot said.
The state does not keep track of past outages, Talbot said. It is not known whether the phones were working on March 5, when a man in his 80s jumped to his death, the first suicide since the phones were installed.
The four solar-powered phones were installed in May 2015 after a sixth person jumped from the bridge, which opened to the public in 2006 and links Verona Island and Prospect over the Penobscot River. The previous bridge, the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, also was the site of numerous suicides over its 75 years in operation.
The phones are housed in protective boxes below signs that read “Picking up the receiver will connect you with a crisis worker,” and “You are not alone.”
The state does not track how often the phones are used, Talbot said.
Weather, including lightning strikes, could be to blame for the phones not working, he said, adding it doesn’t appear that any of them was vandalized.
The phones are meant to connect callers to the Statewide Crisis Hotline at (888) 568-1112.
“It offers a connection,” which is often what people in crisis need, said Greg Marley, clinical director for National Association on Mental Illness of Maine, which helped design the signs posted by the phones.
“A suicidal crisis usually lasts a short time. And helping someone through those darkest hours can save a life,” he said. “The vast majority of people who are interrupted or who get help, continue on to live long and productive lives.”
In 2014, state lawmakers considered installing a suicide prevention fence, but chose to install the phones after learning a barrier would cost would cost $500,000 to $1 million, plus $100,000 every four years to inspect it. The phones cost about $30,000 to install, Talbot said.
Rep. Karl Ward, R-Dedham, whose district includes the bridge, said in March that he planned to mention a suicide prevention fence to the Legislature’s transportation committee to see if it was receptive to discussing the matter again. Neither Ward nor Sen. Ronald Collins, chair of the committee, returned messages Friday.
The phones were made by Rath Security, based in Sussex, Wisconsin. A message left for the general manager on Friday was not returned.
State officials called the regional Rath official, but the Maine DOT is not waiting for the vendor to arrive, Talbot said.
“We’re troubleshooting it right now ourselves,” Talbot said. “We will fix the problem. The question is: Will it be in an hour, or two, or more? I don’t know. We will figure it out. We’ll go from there, and we’ll continue to monitor it week to week, or maybe more frequently.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and contemplating suicide, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 1-888-568-1112. If you are not in Maine, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). A trained crisis prevention worker will be available to talk and set you up with services to help. You can also communicate directly with a crisis counselor online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.