Fingerprinting Plan For Bridge Day 2015 Forces Jumper Boycott

UPDATE: A jumper has decided to go against the BASE community's boycott and help the Bridge Day Commission organize this year. His name is Mark Kissner. He worked for us as the tandem coordinator until we fired him shortly after Bridge Day 2012. He repeatedly attempted to sneak his tandems through our jump line without an ID badge and waiver, in addition to lying to my staff. We felt he wasn't a team player and his actions could have resulted in my company being sued for millions. Well, Bridge Day Commission, he's all yours now. Jumpers, please continue to boycott Bridge Day 2015 as the fingerprinting plan is still in place and jumpers are now being forced to pay for an alternate background check. Nothing has changed with respect to the state police bullying jumpers and spectators. Early reports indicate that jumper's personal information, 2x2 photos, and web site orders that used to be processed through a local jumper (former BASE Coordinator) will now be processed through the Bridge Day Commission.

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 2015 have changed everything and will likely result in no BASE jumpers attending the event. First, a little history of what 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, even emailed 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 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 seven 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. This 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 suspect it might be 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 eye witnesses, 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.

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. I find this claim to be 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.

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.

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:

  1. Chamber of Commerce
  2. WV State Police (Secretary of the Department of Public Safety)
  3. Department of Highways (Secretary of Department of Transportation)
  4. County Commission
  5. Town of Fayetteville (usually a cop)
  6. Sheriff of Fayette County
  7. 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.

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.

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.

Jumpers will stick together and let the Bridge Day Commission, State Police, local Fayetteville and Oak Hill businesses, and any potential BASE organizers know that the majority oppose any type of fingerprinting or biometric check in order to participate. Regardless of any new decisions the Bridge Day Commission may make this year, I am now urging every BASE jumper to not attend Bridge Day 2015. Go jump where your voice is heard, your money is appreciated, and your presence welcomed.

Jason Bell - BASE #428
Bridge Day 2002-2014 BASE Coordinator

"Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither." - Ben Franklin