WOODLAND PARK, N.J. Feb 7 2017— The dangers for private security guards patrolling the George Washington Bridge was underscored Thursday when the body of a 23-year-old man who jumped from the span landed close to a guard booth — an around-the-clock worry for workers tasked with helping to safeguard the world's busiest bridge.
One of the guards employed by Summit Security Services called on the bridge's owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, to take seriously worker safety at the bridge.
“They should do something to protect life regardless of whether we are contractors or not,” said the guard, who did not wish to be identified for fear of being fired. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Another guard, who also did not wish to be named, said: "God forbid, what do you want to happen — for a guard to die?"
GWB guards say harsh working conditions hurt security
A Record investigation published last month highlighted myriad complaints from unarmed guards at the bridge that ranged from poor equipment to lack of bathroom facilities. As a result, the Port Authority is conducting a probe of working conditions. Meanwhile, the guards claim they have been retaliated against by their superiors for speaking out.
Guards patrolling parks in the shadow of the span on both sides of the Hudson River told The Record that their greatest fear is being struck by objects falling from the bridge, including people who jump to their deaths.
In particular, the guards cited an area close to the Little Red Lighthouse, a historic landmark underneath the bridge in Manhattan’s Fort Washington Park.
On Thursday evening, Port Authority police said they discovered the body of the 23-year-old man “next to” the lighthouse, which is about 200 feet west of a booth and a portable toilet used by the guards.
The suicide was the first such death this year. Last year, 12 people died after jumping from the bridge.
The Port Authority says it does not keep figures on how many people land in the water or in the parks, but some guards say it is a constant worry.
They said that when they complained about the danger a few years ago, Summit responded by handing out hard hats.
Summit did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
In response to questions last month, including guards’ fears about falling objects, the firm’s vice president of security, Daniel Sepulveda, said: “None of the conditions you refer to existed, then or now.”
In addition to fear of falling objects, guards also complained about faulty equipment, a lack of air conditioning in their booths and a shortage of relief drivers to occupy their post while they take a bathroom break. Several guards said they had to relieve themselves in bottles.
Security experts warned that low morale among the guards was a risk at the bridge, which serves 100 million vehicles annually and which is seen as a potential terrorist target.
Last month, Port Authority Chairman John Degnan described the allegations as "concerning."
Degnan ordered top agency officials to compile a report on security and work conditions at the bridge. He is expected to discuss the report’s findings at the agency’s board meeting later this month.
Guards said that in the immediate aftermath of The Record investigation, Summit and Port Authority officials attempted to repair relations between the guards and their supervisors and to fix minor issues.
Summit officials attended staff roll calls, telling guards that they should take problems to their supervisors. They also made sure equipment was in working order, fixed heating in guard booths and cleaned security vehicles.
But guards said major issues remain.
Four guards said that there was still a shortage of relief guards, limiting access to bathroom breaks. They added that in the wake of the article Summit conducted a random drug test, the timing of which was seen by some guards as suspicious.
Several guards said that they felt as though they were being retaliated against.
They said that in bad weather, such as extreme cold or heavy rain, supervisors used to reduce the number of times guards had to leave their booth to go on patrol, but in the past month they said supervisors sent guards outdoors in terrible weather conditions while reminding them about the article in The Record.