Vancouver's Burrard Bridge is about to be overhauled to fix crumbling concrete railings and improve access for pedestrians, and the city's medical health officer says this is the time to add a barrier to stop people from jumping to their deaths.

On average, one person per year dies by suicide, jumping off Burrard Bridge — compared to more than four each year on the Lions Gate Bridge.

Those deaths are preventable, said Dr. John Carlsey, a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health.

"It's a very impulsive, desperate act," he said. People may think that someone stopped from jumping off a bridge will harm themselves another way, but Carlsey said studies show the opposite.

"When you talk to people who have been prevented from jumping ... virtually none of them commit suicide."

Carlsey said he would rank Burrard Bridge as fifth in the region for bridges that need some kind of suicide prevention barrier — after Lions Gate, Granville, Patullo, and Alex Fraser Bridges.

Still, he argued it makes sense to include the barrier in the planned $35-million overhaul.

City staff have added the suicide fence to the recommended work — after the public open houses were finished.

Heritage advocates concerned

The issue of suicide prevention on Burrard Bridge has been a longstanding issue, with those opposed concerned that adding a fence or barrier will damage the heritage values of the 1932 bridge.

Anthony Norfolk of Hertitage Vancouver said the public hasn't been adequately consulted on the addition to the plans, and the only design he's seen for a suicide fence looked like "prison bars."

"My concern is what staff and the consultant admit openly is a very severe adverse heritage effect," said Norfolk. "This is an internationally recognized unique bridge. The specific design we have seen is very high impact."

NPA Coun. George Affleck also questioned whether fencing would hurt the experience for other bridge users.

"This is going to potentially effect in a negative way the desire for people to walk across that bridge and cycle across that bridge."

"I don't think we can deny there will be an impact" in how the bridge looks, said Coun. Heather Deal, who added staff would work with the Vancouver Heritage Commission if the plans are passed.

It's not clear what the final design of a suicide barrier on the bridge would be, and council has yet to pass the staff recommended plans.

With files from Richard Zussman