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DC’s Metro waits almost a half-hour to call fire department about fire alarm

Police officer sent to investigate & finds smoke in bus building 25-minutes later

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When a fire alarm sounded Saturday at the Southern Avenue Metrobus Division, Metro waited almost a half-hour before alerting the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department (PGFD). Instead of immediately contacting PGFD, a Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) officer was dispatched to check the building at 1301 Boones Hill Road. When the officer got to the scene–approximately 25-minutes after being dispatched–he discovered a haze of smoke on the Southern Avenue side of the large building. MTPD radio traffic (above) shows the officer expressed surprise the fire department hadn’t already been dispatched and requested they be alerted. PGFD firefighters (radio traffic is below) found smoke in the building and spent about 20-minutes tracing the source to a pump in the basement.

Metro has a long history of delaying contacting fire departments about fire and smoke alarms and other emergencies at its facilities. After a series of STATter911 reports in late 2019 about delayed fire department responses to rail emergencies, Metro acknowledged in a December 20 statement that it’s reviewing “emergency response notification” and said that “ongoing, process changes are anticipated.” It’s not clear if that review applies to non-rail portions of Metro’s infrastructure. (In fairness to Metro, it should be noted DC’s 911 center contributed to some of the fire department dispatch delays reported by STATter911.)

Reached on Sunday, a Metro spokesperson told STATter911 they’re checking further on the notification procedures and policies followed when fire alarms are activated at its various facilities. The spokesperson says monitoring such alarms and making notifications is not the responsibility of the dispatch center for the Metro Transit Police Department and is handled elsewhere in Metro.

Next Sunday will mark the fifth anniversary of a tragic day for Metro that was caused, in part, by rail controllers ignoring smoke alarms and sending a train operator to check for smoke. In that incident at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station, it took almost 20-minutes before Metro alerted DC’s 911 center. Carol Glover, a passenger aboard that train, died and scores of others were treated for smoke inhalation after their train became trapped in the tunnel as an electrical fire burned on the tracks.

While the smoke inside the bus facility turned out to be a relatively minor problem, it’s not hard to see how waiting almost a half-hour before alerting firefighters can lead to a small fire becoming a larger one. The radio traffic gives the impression Metro didn’t see the fire alarm sounding Saturday as a priority. In fact, you can hear the officer who was dispatched to the alarm stopping for a minute or two to handle another issue he discovered while driving to the bus garage.

Twenty-years-ago, Interim DC Fire Chief Tom Tippett confronted officials at the U.S. Capitol about delayed responses because its police officers were checking out fire alarms and reports of fires before contacting the DC Fire Department. Maybe it’s time our local fire chiefs send the same message to Metro, making it clear that firefighters are best equipped to handle fire alarms and should be alerted immediately.

Southern Avenue view of the Metro building via Google Maps

Based on MTPD and PGFD radio traffic from OpenMHZ.com, here’s a timeline from Saturday’s incident:

  • 2:55 p.m. MTPD dispatcher sends Adam 8 to a report of an activated fire alarm at the Southern Avenue Metrobus Division. The complex carries an address of 1301 Boones Hill Road. The dispatcher says there’s no report of smoke or fire.
  • 3:03 p.m. Adam 8, while driving to the bus facility, stops at 49th and Blaine in Northeast Washington to assist with an unrelated issue.
  • 3:04 p.m. Adam 8 tells the dispatcher he’s “clear, back en-route to Southern.”
  • 3:12 p.m. Adam 8 arrives at the bus facility.
  • 3:20 p.m. Adam 8 asks, “Was the fire department dispatched to this location?” When he was told no, he responds, “I thought you said they were, but go ahead and start them to this location.” Adam 8 reports it’s “a little hazy” in the rear of the facility near an electrical box.
  • 3:24 p.m. PGFD is dispatched to 1301 Boones Hill Road for a report of a haze around an electrical box and an automatic fire alarm sounding with Metro police on the scene.
  • 3:27 p.m. Paramedic Engine 805 arrives.
  • 3:31 p.m. Paramedic Engine 805 confirms a haze of smoke and a strong odor.
  • 3:38 p.m. Tower 833 reports the haze is stronger the lower they get in the building.
  • 3:42 p.m. Tower 833 has traced the source of the smoke to a pump room in the basement.
  • 3:45 p.m. The incident is down scaled with one engine company and one truck company remaining for smoke removal.
Southern Avenue Metrobus Division from Google Maps

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