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New: DC 911 takes almost 10-minutes to dispatch firefighters to a subway tunnel fire

Significant dispatch delays during 3 separate Metro incidents Tuesday, but Dupont/Woodley was the worst

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Tuesday was a bad day from start to finish for riders on Metro’s Red Line subway. There were at least three smoke/fire incidents during rainy weather. The first one impacted the morning rush hour and two others disrupted train traffic for the evening trip home. None of the incidents ended up being significant fires and no injuries were reported. The fires were related to the ongoing arcing, sparking, smoking and burning issues Metro has long experienced in some of the rail system’s electrical components.

Unfortunately–as has become the rule rather than the exception–the combination of Washington, DC’s 911 center and Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) resulted in delays dispatching DC Fire & EMS to all three of these incidents. The longest delay, by far, was at the hands of the DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC or 911 center) during the day’s second incident.

OUC has a long history of dispatching firefighters and EMS to rail and other emergencies. The current 911 director, Karima Holmes,was recently questioned by DC Council members about a 4-minute dispatch delay to a deadly house fire. Holmes wasn’t able to provide good answers for the skeptical law makers. Her performance brought reminders of her predecessor, Jennifer Greene, who was fired in 2015 following her inability to explain the 911 center’s consistent failure to meet call processing standards. Holmes remains on the job and those same problems continue.

An OUC spokesperson confirms for STATter911 that it took 911 almost 10-minutes to process a call alerting them to the second reported fire–between the Woodley Park and Dupont Circle stations–late Tuesday afternoon. OUC has not explained why this embarrassingly lengthy dispatch delay occurred.

As you will hear from the Metro radio traffic (below, via OpenMHz.com), a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) worker informed a rail dispatcher of a fire on the tracks at 4:27:24 p.m.

According to the OUC spokesperson, the 911 center received the call about the fire at 4:31:24. I’ve also been in touch with a Metro spokesperson inquiring about why it took about four-minutes to contact OUC. I expect to hear more as they know it.

In the video below, you’ll hear there was an audio issue during the radio dispatch of the call to DC Fire & EMS (there’s no indication the audio problem contributed to the delay). The OUC spokesperson confirms firefighters were alerted at 4:41:09, or a total of 9-minutes, 45-seconds after OUC was informed about the fire. Remember, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard for high priority calls, like a subway tunnel fire, is to dispatch them in less than 60-seconds, 90-percent of the time.

While not as lengthy as the Woodley/Dupont incident, there were also delays sending help during the other two fires on Tuesday. It took more than seven-minutes for DC Fire & EMS to be dispatched to the report of a fire at the Tenleytown station. And it took about nine-minutes before the dispatch of fire and EMS to a fire reported near the Van Ness station. (Details on these times are at the bottom of this post.)

As I’ve reminded you many times before, there’s a lot of bad communications history between Metro’s subway system and area fire departments. It goes back to Metro’s beginnings and has continued. This problem finally received significant scrutiny following a tragic incident on January 15, 2015. As smoke filled a tunnel at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station, ROCC wasted almost 20-minutes and OUC lost 6-minutes before firefighters & EMS were dispatched to the correct location. ROCC sent two trains toward danger, trapping one filled with passengers in the tunnel. Carol Glover took her last breaths on the floor of a Metro car while waiting to be rescued. Scores of others were injured.

More recently, WTTG-TV/FOX 5 reporter Paul Wagner and STATter911 documented delays and confusion during three other rail emergencies:

Now, almost 14-minutes wasted before the DC Fire & EMS Department was sent to one of Tuesday’s rail emergencies. Is there anyone who finds this acceptable? Am I unrealistic to expect ROCC to request the fire department within 60 to 90 seconds of a report of a fire, medical or other emergency? Is it too much to want the 911 center in the Nation’s Capital to meet national dispatch standards?

Rail passengers were lucky on Tuesday. Yes, they had a miserable commute. But they were lucky these fires didn’t put off more smoke as has happened during more than a few of these electrical incidents.They were also lucky they didn’t have to sit on a smoke-filled train–like Carol Glover–while waiting for help that wasn’t on the way.

Photo: Max Smith, WTOP Radio

Below is the summary of the three calls Tuesday. It’s based on times provided from spokespersons for Metro and OUC, along with the time stamps from the OpenMHz radio traffic.

Tenleytown Metro Station

  • 8:34:12 (a.m.) Sparks reported on tracks by passing train
  • 8:37:11 Train 130 confirms fire on the tracks under the third rail
  • 8:42:19 OUC receives call about the fire (OUC’s time, Metro says it was 8:41)
  • 8.43.56 Call sent to dispatch
  • 8:44:26 DC Fire & EMS dispatched (OUC notes call-to-dispatch time of 2.07)

Woodley Park/Dupont Circle Stations

  • 4:27:24 (p.m.) Fire reported on track
  • 4:31:24 OUC receives call about the fire
  • 4:34:23 Call sent to dispatch
  • 4:41:09 DC Fire & EMS is dispatched (OUC notes call-to-dispatch time of 9:45)

Van Ness/Tenleytown Metro Stations

  • 6:16:27 (p.m.) Fire reported on tracks between Van Ness and Tenleytown
  • 6.21.48 OUC contacted about the fire
  • 6:22:08 Call created in CAD
  • 6:25.26 DC Fire & EMS is dispatched (OUC notes call-to-dispatch time of 3:38)

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