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Maryland 911 center–like DC–struggles with promptly dispatching Metrorail emergencies

Montgomery County addressing 3 calls, including one that took more than 10-minutes

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The 911 center in Montgomery County, Maryland is struggling to promptly dispatch firefighters to emergencies inside the Washington area’s Metrorail subway system. After STATter911 notified Montgomery County officials about three delayed responses in January and early February a county spokesperson issued a statement saying those dispatch times are “longer than we would like.” In addition, Montgomery County officials point out 911 call-takers are following a new policy that requires gathering more information from Metro about rail emergencies.

One of Metro’s requests for Montgomery County firefighters took more than 10 minutes to dispatch and another took more than seven-minutes. During a third incident, firefighters hadn’t been dispatched by the time the call was canceled. The cancellation came more than eight-minutes after Metro notified the 911 center of the emergency. (Radio traffic and details about the incidents can be found further down in this post.)

Montgomery County’s 911 center is called the Emergency Communications Center (ECC). ECC is run by the Montgomery County Police Department. In December, ECC made news with a 9-minute delay due to firefighters being sent to the wrong address for a house fire. Montgomery County Police initially claimed a call-taker “misunderstood” the caller. But a recording acquired by reporter Tom Roussey from WJLA-TV shows the caller had correctly spelled the name of the street within 60-seconds of reaching 911.

It’s not just a Montgomery County problem

STATter911 has long reported on delayed responses to Metrorail incidents. Time-stamped radio traffic posted by now provides a way to document when Metro is first discovering incidents and when firefighters are dispatched. During the last three months of 2019 STATter911 reported on eight incidents where there were significant delays. All of those incidents involved Washington, DC’s 911 center, known as the Office of Unified Communications (OUC). Some delays lasted longer than 15-minutes.

Metro acknowledged in December it’s addressing how its Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) notifies area fire departments about emergencies. The STATter911 reports prompted Metro to discover since 2012 it was contacting DC 911 via a non-emergency number, rather than a number equivalent in priority to 911. That wrong number and any delay in starting notifications on Metro’s end only explains part of the problem. Unlike Montgomery County and Metro, DC officials have not provided reasons for the lengthy delays and confusion that have occurred after Metro’s ROCC connects with OUC.

Montgomery’s explanation

Montgomery County–while admitting the dispatch delays were an issue–also cites its new policy on Metro responses. It requires call-takers to get more detailed information when ROCC requests firefighters. Here’s Montgomery County’s statement in its entirety:

In July 2019, Montgomery County implemented a new Incident Response Policy for METRO responses. This new policy better addresses the broad spectrum of events reported by METRO so we can send the right number of resources to the right location, and so we do not over respond to a minor incident that is best handled by METRO. Since around 2016, METRO notifies the responsible jurisdiction’s 911 center any time there is possible fire related event, even if it’s just an undefined electrical odor. Historically, METRO would differentiate whether this was simply a notification or if they were requesting a Fire Rescue response. For these minor events, METRO has already notified their Emergency Response Team who are responding and often better suited to handle. In addition, as with the three incidents you cited, METRO is sometimes unable to provide a chain marker, which obviously makes the call entry process more difficult. Getting a dispatchable location either by a station or chain marker is important for all incidents even if it takes more time getting.

That said, the time it took to process these three calls, even without a chain marker, is longer than we would like. We have taught our call takers to use the midpoint chain marker if METRO reports an event in a tunnel between stations. We have addressed these calls with the appropriate call takers, and will reiterate with all call takers about processing a METRO event without a specific location. We will also evaluate our METRO related documents for clarity and ease of use.

Bethesda Metro: 8-minutes

On January 3, there was a report of an arcing insulator between the Friendship Heights Station in DC and the Bethesda Station in Montgomery County. Around 1:02 p.m., Metro notified both Montgomery’s ECC and DC’s OUC that firefighters were needed at each station. While DC dispatched its assignment at 1:04 p.m., Montgomery County’s firefighters were never dispatched.

On the radio traffic (above) you hear both the DC Fire & EMS Department battalion chief and ROCC’s fire liaison officer communicating with Montgomery’s ECC. At 1:08 p.m.–six minutes after ROCC contacted ECC–someone at ECC responded “we don’t have anything”, indicating he was unaware of the call. Moments later, ECC acknowledged, “We are working on it.” But that dispatch never occurred.

At 1:10 p.m.–eight minutes after being contacted by ROCC–ECC still hadn’t alerted Montgomery County firefighters. But at that point DC’s battalion chief and ROCC’s fire liaison officer determined the incident was on the DC side at Friendship Heights and Montgomery County wasn’t needed.

White Flint Metro: 11-minutes

On January 29, at 9:55 a.m. Metro’s ROCC reported a smoke incident at the White Flint Station. The call wasn’t dispatched until 10:06 a.m., almost 11-minutes after ROCC’s first called. Montgomery said it appeared ROCC hung up when the call was being transferred to the fire side of ECC. Even after Montgomery County got ROCC back on the line–at 9:57 a.m.–it still took more than nine-minutes before firefighters were dispatched.

Silver Spring Metro: 7-minutes

On February 7 at 7:23 a.m. Metro’s ROCC contacted Montgomery County about sparks reported near the Silver Spring Station. It took ECC until 7:30 to dispatch firefighters.

Note: All times for these incidents were confirmed by spokespersons for both Montgomery Country and Metro.

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