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It took eleven-minutes before firefighters were sent to a report of arcing insulators inside a Washington, DC subway tunnel on Monday. This the latest of numerous incidents first reported by STATter911 where firefighters received delayed notification about Metrorail emergencies. In a statement today (Friday) in connection with another recent emergency, Metro acknowledges it’s reviewing its emergency response notification process and expects changes to be made.
An 11-minute gap at Friendship Heights
The first indication that firefighters were needed at the Friendship Heights Metro Station came at 7:22 a.m. Monday from a radio report to Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) about arcing insulators with possible fire (listen to the video above).
The DC Fire & EMS Department wasn’t dispatched until 7:33 a.m. (the video below), eleven-minutes later. What happened during that time sheds light on the difficulties communicating between ROCC and area 911 centers, particularly DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC).
Metro’s ROCC couldn’t reach DC’s OUC
The Friendship Heights Metro Station sits on the border of Washington, DC and Montgomery County, Maryland. A Metro spokesperson confirms that at 7:24 a.m., about two minutes after the radio notification of arcing and a possible fire, ROCC contacted Montgomery County’s 911 center (Emergency Communications Center or ECC). According to the spokesperson, during the first three-minutes and thirty-seconds of the call it was determined the incident was on the DC side of the station. The spokesperson tells STATter911, at that point, Montgomery’s ECC tried unsuccessfully to connect ROCC with OUC for about the next two-minutes, thirty-seconds. ECC then told ROCC to try to connect directly with OUC.
DC’s OUC confirms receiving the call from ROCC at about 7:31 a.m. OUC then needed more than two-minutes, thirty-seconds to process and dispatch the call. The National Fire Protection Association standard says that 90-percent of these high priority calls should be dispatched by 911 in less than 60-seconds.
Fire liaison at ROCC
During the January 12, 2015 deadly fire at L’Enfant Plaza, Metro’s ROCC took almost 20-minutes before notifying DC 911. OUC then lost another six-minutes before the call was correctly dispatched. In the aftermath of that tragedy, local fire chiefs convinced Metro to pay for a fire officer from area departments to be at ROCC around the clock.
The ROCC fire liaison has been an important communications tool during rail emergencies. The liaison can be regularly heard conversing by radio with incident commanders on the scene of Metro incidents–big or small–throughout the region. What’s not clear is the role, if any, the fire liaison has prior to dispatch. Is the liaison brought in immediately during the decision making process to alert firefighters and are they always the person making that notification?
The recent history of notification delays
Here’s a list of recent notification delays during Metrorail emergencies:
- October 7: It took about 17-minutes before DC Fire & EMS received accurate notification about the collision of two trains at the Farragut West Station.
- October 14: It took about 15-minutes before DC Fire & EMS was correctly dispatched after a man fell onto the tracks at the Waterfront Station.
- November 2: It took about 11-minutes before DC Fire & EMS were dispatched to a small fire on the platform at the Gallery Place Station.
- December 10: It took about 14-minutes before DC Fire & EMS was dispatched to a reported fire on the tracks between Woodley Park and Dupont Circle. This was the second of three reported fires on December 10. During the first incident, at Tenleytown, it took about seven-minutes for firefighters to be dispatched. The third incident, at Van Ness, took about nine-minutes.
A reminder that these times are a combination of how long it takes Metro to notify 911 and how long 911 takes to dispatch firefighters.
What Metro is doing
In its statement today about safety violations during the December 10 Tenleytown fire, Metro said, “While Metro’s review into emergency response notification is ongoing, process changes are anticipated.”
In conversations about STATter911 stories, Metro has acknowledged that tracking down the various reasons for delays and correcting the communications problems is an ongoing process.