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Once again, a delay notifying firefighters to a fire in DC’s Metro subway system

Fire department not dispatched until 11-minutes after smoke report

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Is it really that hard? When you have a smoke in a building, you call the fire department … immediately. But that has never been the way things occur in the Metro subway system. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has a long history of delayed responses to emergencies, particularly in the Washington, DC portion of the rail system. Saturday night was no exception. It took at least 11-minutes for firefighters to be sent to what turned out to be a real (but small) fire inside the Gallery Place Metro Station. While it’s not yet completely clear who’s responsible for this lengthy delay, Metro’s history has numerous incidents where its workers check out reports of smoke and other emergencies first before calling the fire department. In the past, this has resulted in long delays notifying firefighters, causing harm and even death to passengers. This time they were lucky and there were no injuries.

In the time-stamped radio traffic from OpenMHz Saturday (above) a rail dispatcher from Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) told a supervisor at about 8:21 p.m. “Go ahead to Gallery for me, we have a report of some smoke somewhere on the Green Line at Galley Place.” For the next 15-minutes or so you can hear on the recording rail dispatchers for both the Green Line and Red Line tell various supervisors and train operators about the smoke and ask them about the conditions they were finding along the platform of both lines.

If things were working how they should, it would be reasonable to assume firefighters were also dispatched to handle this fire in a rail transportation system responsible for the safety of hundreds of thousands of people each day. Such an assumption would be wrong. The DC Fire and EMS Department wasn’t alerted to the call until 8:32 p.m. That’s about 11-minutes after Metro’s first report of smoke at Gallery Place.

The DC Fire and EMS Department confirms the call was created in the computer-aided-dispatch system of the Office of Unified Communications (OUC or 911 center) at 8:32:05 and dispatched at 8:32:39. What we don’t yet know is exactly when Metro’s ROCC called OUC to alert them to the smoke problem. Generally, that should occur about the time OUC creates the record in the computer system (if that’s how it occurred for this incident, OUC should be commended for doing an unusually rapid job of dispatching this call). I have requests into OUC and Metro and will update this post with new information they provide.

WMATA image

DC Fire and EMS Department Chief Communications Officer Doug Buchanan confirms when firefighters arrived they found a small debris fire burning along the back wall of one of the rail platforms (the side opposite the tracks) and used a hose to extinguish the fire.

Of course, an 11-minute delay in notifying firefighters to a fire in a major transportation system should be unacceptable. Somehow it’s standard operating procedure in our Nation’s Capital. In recent weeks we’ve reported the combination of WMATA’s ROCC and OUC have been responsible for at least 15-minute delays in sending DC Fire & EMS for a man who fell onto the tracks at the Waterfront Station (October 14) and a collision between two trains at the Farragut West Station (October 7).

Family photo of Carol Glover

Somehow, no one has learned the lesson from similar delays in Metro’s past that caused great harm and even death to rail passengers. On January 12, 2015 Metro’s ROCC ignored alarms and other warnings and had it’s own people check reports of smoke at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station. They even sent two trains full of hundreds of passengers toward the potential danger. One of those trains became trapped in the smoke-filled tunnel. The smoke was generated by a small track fire. Metro waited almost 20-minutes before notifying DC’s OUC. OUC then wasted six-minutes processing the call and originally sent firefighters to the wrong station. During this delay, passenger Carol Glover took her last breaths, choking on smoke on the floor of one of the rail cars. Scores of other passengers were sent to the hospital for smoke inhalation.

The L’Enfant Plaza incident echoed a similar fire 15-years-earlier. It was April 20, 2000 when ROCC sent a train with 270 passengers to check out a track fire. The train became trapped by the arcing rail and passengers began coughing and gasping for breath. DC’s pre-OUC 911 center–then run by the Metropolitan Police Department–received initial word of the fire from panicked passengers calling from cell phones. DC firefighters were already responding or on the scene before notification came from Metro about the fire and trapped passengers.

How can it be after all of the fallout from the 2015 fire that killed Carol Glover Metro and OUC somehow still can’t make sure fire and EMS is dispatched promptly at the first report of these incidents? This is exactly why I don’t feel the least bit guilty when I say, “When seconds count in an emergency, you can can count on Metro and DC 911 to take minutes.”

The pattern is clear. Some of the major problems that brought disaster in 2015 are still occurring during rail emergencies. If not addressed, another tragedy will occur.

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