Bridge Day 2016
What? No fingerprinting or background checks at Bridge Day 2016? But the state police told us in 2014 they didn't have enough "resources" to check everyone's parachute. Perhaps they found the resources after last year's low attendance? If you'll read below, you'll notice we (the 2002-2014 Bridge Day BASE Coordinators) listed bomb-sniffing dogs as the #1 suggestion back in 2014 in order to avoid the invasive practice of fingerprinting BASE jumpers. Many of us will never forget though....
From 2002-2014, this website served the 450+ BASE jumpers from 10+ countries and 43+ US states that attended Bridge Day each year. Unfortunately, Bridge Day 2015 got off to a bad start with a new Bridge Day Commission requirement to fingerprint all BASE jumpers. Online polls indicated that more than 95% of all Bridge Day BASE jumpers would decline to attend the event if fingerprinting was mandatory. Additionally, no resolution to the State Police bullying of spectators and jumpers has yet been offered. In protest, my company Vertical Visions declined the opportunity to continue as the Bridge Day BASE Jumping Coordinator in 2015 and most company assets were sold.
Jumper attendance at Bridge Day 2015 dropped by more than 70% with a 60-70% reduction in the number of jumps made. Major sponsors such as Subaru and Red Bull pulled out. The crowd was noticably smaller than in past years. The WV State Police had the largest booth (see above) at BASE jumper headquarters. Spectators asked why the human catapult was gone. The Holiday Lodge reported a financial loss of approximately $35,000 compared to past Bridge Day events. Unfortunately, it appears that Bridge Day's best years are in the past. Will the Bridge Day Commission rethink their approach in 2016?
Many thanks to Bill Bird (LZ Coordinator), all jumpers, volunteers, staff, vendors, and businesses who supported us over the years.
Jason Bell - BASE #428
Vertical Visions LLC
Bridge Day BASE Jumping Coordinator 2002-2014
A Little History
My name is Jason Bell and I served as the Bridge Day BASE Jumping Coordinator from 2002-2014. I made my first BASE jump at Bridge Day long ago and my family has grown to love the New River Gorge area over the years. However, new requirements for Bridge Day have changed everything and will likely result in few BASE jumpers attending the event. First, a little history of what has transpired recently...
In August 2014, I received information that the Bridge Day Commission (BDC) was planning to scan every jumper, rappeller, and vendor's fingerprints in order to participate at Bridge Day 2015. The fingerprint scanning process would take place one day prior to the event and each participant must produce a valid ID. I immediately wondered why this extra level of scrutiny was necessary since there were no known issues with the old background check process that thoroughly checked each and every jumper. In October 2014 during the Bridge Day post-jump meeting that most BASE jumpers attend, I advised everyone about the BDC's plans. A show of hands indicated that less than 5% of all BASE jumpers would return to Bridge Day 2015 if a fingerprint plan was in place. Jumpers were outraged.
In November 2014, I shared my thoughts on the overreaching fingerprint plan with the BDC along with a list of logistical problems, concerns, and alternative suggestions. An online poll on a BASE jumper forum indicated less than 3% would attend Bridge Day 2015 with hundreds of jumpers weighing in on the subject. Shortly thereafter, a BDC meeting was held and they voted to proceed with the fingerprint plan. My heart sank.
In early January 2015, jumpers were now energized. They contacted the local Chamber of Commerce and complained about the fingerprint plan. Some of us answered questions for newspaper articles and radio interviews. In protest, jumpers organized a "Boycott Bridge Day" Facebook page and an alternate competing event on the same day as Bridge Day 2015 from the 486' tall Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho (where it's legal and free to jump every day of the year). I was quite surprised by how passionate other jumpers were about removing the fingerprint plan. Newspapers started to pick up on the fact that Bridge Day 2015 might be a bust, so the BDC decided to "rethink" their newly-created background check process. The momentum seemed to move towards the BASE jumping community. The head of the Bridge Day Commission (Sharon Cruikshank), even emailed me to ask if I'd come back and organize Bridge Day BASE jumping if the fingerprint plan was removed. She offered to not increase the $10 per jumper fee that is paid by me to the BDC.
On January 21, 2015, a Bridge Day Commission meeting was held to discuss the opposition to fingerprint scans. I couldn't attend due to a work commitment in San Diego, but several jumpers attended and voiced their concerns. Prior to the meeting, I emailed and telephoned the BDC again with my thoughts and suggestions on alternatives. Local business owners pleaded for the BDC to drop the plan since their revenue would take a massive hit if jumpers failed to show for Bridge Day 2015. Despite all this, it has been reported that West Virginia State Police officer Kenneth Tawes made a motion to proceed with the fingerprint scans and the Fayette County Sheriff Department's Mike Fridley seconded the motion. All BDC members voted for the motion and Bridge Day BASE jumping officially died at that very moment.
Now, let's rewind things to see how we got here. No Bridge Day background checks were performed from 1980 to 2000. Immediately after 9/11, the BDC began requesting the name, birthdate, and SSN (or passport number if not a US citizen) for all participants. The justification for this was that jumpers carried "backpacks", which could be packed with explosives. Personal information was collected by the Bridge Day 2001 coordinator at that time, but a few weeks prior to the event, the BDC voted to cancel Bridge Day 2001. For the next 13 years (Bridge Day 2002-2014), I alone collected this personal information from each jumper (as requested by the BDC), delivered it to the local Sheriff for a background check, and deleted/destroyed it after being told everyone had passed. The background check process was always a one-time only check performed months in advance of the event, meaning that a successful check from 2002-2014 would permit a jumper to not be required to submit the same information year after year. During that 13 year time period, no problems arose and no jumpers ever failed the background check. From time to time, I would encounter jumpers who were opposed to the submission of their personal information and they refused to jump at Bridge Day.
According to initial reports from the BDC, the proposed new fingerprint plan will check a database that searches for fugitives, warrants, and sex-offenders. This has now changed to just checking for "terrorists" as it apparently garners more public support. The BDC says they're only concerned with terrorists, although logic would indicate that anyone with an active warrant will be paraded around the Holiday Lodge Oak Hill hotel (BASE jumping headquarters during Bridge Day) in handcuffs and hauled off to jail. Jumpers will also be required to produce a photo ID during the fingerprint scan. My request to the BDC for information for details on the fingerprint scanner being used has not been answered since November 2014, but I've since been told it's the "Morphoident" system that has been used by the West Virginia State Police. The BDC has stated the fingerprints won't be stored, but we are very skeptical. Why would they NOT store them? They're the Government. Who would ever be willing to step forward and fight the Government? According to former park rangers who I've personally spoken to, the National Park Service (NPS) already has a well-known list of BASE jumpers kept on file in a safe at New River Gorge National River headquarters. Although fingerprint scanner manufacturers may claim their device doesn't store fingerprints in standalone mode, many are capable of doing so if connected to other devices or servers.
In recent months, the BDC tried to sell their new fingerprint plan by claiming it wouldn't require them to store names, birthdates, and SSNs anymore and it was just like a Disney World scan. I find this claim to be very misleading. If the BDC ever retained the personal information of Bridge Day jumpers, they have done the exact opposite of what was supposed to be performed. Since 2002, this personal information was never intended to be stored by me or anyone on the BD Commission. I was always told personal information would be destroyed by the BDC once the background checks came back clean. I always deleted this personal data as soon as I got a green light from the Sheriff or whomever did the background check. If the BDC was storing personal information after the event, then that goes against what they publicly stated would be done. Hopefully by "storing" our information, they meant it was retained for a short period of time until a background check was complete. Additionally, Disney World finger scans aren't performed by State Police and they don't check to see if you're a terrorist or have a warrant.
There are many facets to our opposition to fingerprinting, well beyond the often used argument that "others already do it". It's an invasive and demeaning Government overreach. It doesn't coincide logistically with our current system of handing out jumper ID badges. The old system wasn't broken. And 100,000 spectators, many which bypass security by simply walking through the woods to reach the bridge, are not subject to the same screening requirements. Bridge Day security is nothing more than pseudo-security. I can list at least a half dozen security incidents that occurred from 2002-2014 that would prove the incompetance of those in charge. I can also list another half dozen incidents where the State Police were aggressive bullies toward jumpers and spectators.
When I asked why the BDC wants to fingerprint us, I received the following response from the West Virginia State Police representative on the BDC:
The FBI who run CJIS have advised us that we may not run such an in depth inquiry on people for non criminal offense reasons. The fingerprint scan which is just one finger "the index" runs a check on a person to see if they are on the Terrorist Watch List or wanted in NCIC or if they are a Sex Offender. If they are not on the watch list or wanted, then they would be good to go. We don't have to deal with social security numbers, addresses or dates of birth. The plan is to have jumpers and rappellers to show up the night before put there finger on the machine if nothing comes back then they will be given their jump or rappell credentials. This will be done for venders too. They will have to show a valid ID also.
For the last 13 years, it appears that the BDC has performed background checks on jumpers that were too in-depth and the FBI has now hut them down. The BDC claims that the new fingerprint plan is "easier". How can it actually be easier if they're doing everything the day before Bridge Day? For any jumper or BASE Coordinator, performing background checks on paper months before the event, as was done in past years, is easier. Personally, I see the fingerprinting of jumpers being implemented as a method to:
- Obtain fingerprint data to add to their existing list of name/birthdate/SSNs. The NPS already has a database of jumpers that has been confirmed a few years ago by an unhappy ranger who called me with details.
- Close the event (they'd rather be watching football on a Saturday afternoon).
- Gain more control over the event (to better check jumper numbers and eliminate any possibility of the BASE and rappelling coordinators letting friends through).
- Externalize their bias against BASE jumpers.
- Perpetuate the myth that more security makes us safer.
To fully understand the above assumptions, it's important to understand the entities that comprise the BDC. The BDC was enacted via West Virginia Senate Bill 441 on March 10, 1990. Four of the seven (or 57%) are law enforcement:
- Chamber of Commerce
- WV State Police (Secretary of the Department of Public Safety)
- Department of Highways (Secretary of Department of Transportation)
- County Commission
- Town of Fayetteville (usually a cop)
- Sheriff of Fayette County
- NPS (voted to this position by the BD Commission since state law only recognizes six)
It's clear that the wrong people are in charge of Bridge Day while no representation exists for local business owners, jumpers, rappellers, or vendors. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement personnel on the BDC is a problem that seriously limits the growth of Bridge Day. In my opinion, anyone who voted for fingerprinting should be removed from the Bridge Day Commission.
Now let's analyze some security suggestions from the BASE community to ensure that jumpers, rappellers, and vendors can't cause harm at the event:
- Bomb-sniffing dogs and/or bag checks at the bridge entrances and bus stop at the middle of the bridge. We're guessing most terrorist's fingerprints aren't on file and this method will stop a bad guy with clean fingerprints. This is our top choice.
- Keep the existing background check policy of submitting names, SSN, and birthdate. This system worked fine for 13 years and we never heard one complaint from anyone at the Bridge Day Commission about the collection, submission, or processing of our personal information.
- Remove the background check altogether since 0 jumpers have failed it in 13 years.
- Perhaps a meeting with the Bridge Day Commission would allow us to seek alternate methods of submitting a small amount of personal information to facilitate a background check.
Despite being advised after Bridge Day 2014 that a fingerprinting requirement would force jumpers to go elsewhere, the Bridge Day Commission voted twice to move forward with the plan. A jumper boycott in early 2015 was implemented and the effects were noticed by many. Unknown to most of the BASE community, several sympathetic BASE jumpers who expressed prior interest in organzing the event were quick to work a side deal around the same time the boycott began to take hold. It only took a few months before one of them hired a lawyer, who proceeded to send me a lovely letter threatening to sue me over some truthful information I posted on this web site. The new "BASE advisors" touted success while ignoring the fact that others had paved the road for them. While the Bridge Day Commission gave in and removed the fingerprinting requirement for a portion of the jumper registration period, numerous other concerns expressed by me over my 13 years as BASE Jumping Coordinator were ignored. Jumpers had the opportunity to fight for issues that were important (state police bullying, no rain date, fingerprinting, a complete lack of respect for jumpers, excessive fees, etc.), but most was lost when this side deal was made. Now, the Bridge Day Commission is the new BASE Coordinator and everything is being processed through their web site. The BASE community has lost some control over the event with the new BASE Advisor demotion, which is unfortunate. If we (BASE jumpers) are not willing to hang together, then surely we will all hang separately.
I'm curious if any other sports/activity requires fingerprinting as a prerequisite? It astounds me to think that we've come to the point where jumpers are required to have their fingerprints scanned in order to entertain the crowd at Bridge Day. Has it really come to this? Perhaps a DNA sample in future years will be the norm? Some are quick to say that paranoia drives the 95% of BASE jumpers who are against fingerprinting, however, it's hardly a valid argument coming from the 5% minority.
I will never be fingerprinted to make a BASE jump and I definitely won't be the BASE organizer of an event that requires it. It's an unnecessary Government overreach, it's invasive, and it's profiling. Some will say it's their event and they can set the rules, but we can also go elsewhere to jump. Do not underestimate the cohesiveness of the BASE community.
In spring of 2015, the Bridge Day Commission decided to take over many of my company's responsibilities in organizing the BASE jumping at Bridge Day. They are also working with a BASE advisor, who has far less control over the BASE jumping portion of the event than I ever did. It appears that jumpers will now have to register to jump with the Chamber of Commerce. This is sad news. Jumpers no longer have an experienced local jumper representing their best interests.
Jason Bell - BASE #428
Bridge Day 2002-2014 BASE Coordinator
"Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither." - Ben Franklin