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DC 911 says first call about rail emergency came from a passenger & not Metro

New timeline further highlights serious communications failures after train stalled outside Rhode Island Avenue station

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A passenger on a stranded subway train was the first to alert DC 911 to the emergency, further highlighting a serious communications breakdown at Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). The new information from DC’s Office of Unified Communications (OUC) comes two days after the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission’s (WMSC) CEO admonished Metro for its poor communications with police, fire and EMS during the March 26 incident. An OUC timeline and radio traffic recorded by OpenMHz.com illustrate continuing problems at both ROCC and OUC in promptly and accurately dispatching DC Fire & EMS to rail emergencies.

An OUC spokesperson provided STATter911 with the timeline (below) Thursday evening. It shows a passenger called 911 at 4:57 pm, approximately an hour and fifteen minutes after the Red Line train stalled on elevated track outside the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station. According to OUC’s notes, “Female caller advises she is on the red line and needs an ambulance to come help her because she was on the way to the hospital and they won’t let her off the train. The train is stopped, and she can see the Edgewood Apartments. She said she is stuck on the train. She is transferred to Transit Police.”

Timeline of initial communications during Metro rail emergency on March 26, 2021 provided by DC’s Office of Unified Communications.

It’s not clear if the 911 call transferred to the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) was the first time MTPD became aware of the stalled train. In a memo to staff critical of Metro’s response and communications, General Manager Paul Wiedefeld pointed out that timely notification of MTPD by ROCC did not occur, precluding officers from boarding the train and assisting passengers. The memo, leaked to the news media last weekend, also announced changes Wiedefeld is making to better identify and handle rail emergencies. That information was initially reported Saturday by ABC7/WJLA-TV.

It’s not clear why OUC didn’t dispatch DC Fire & EMS immediately after the woman’s 911 call requesting an ambulance. In fact, OUC didn’t send the ambulance until seven minutes later, and only after Transit Police called back. In OUC’s notes about the MTPD call it says, “Ambulance to Rhode Island Metro Station for a woman who is 12 weeks pregnant, on the train and the train is stopped.”

 

OUC has also not explained why an ambulance was sent alone to this emergency (audio above). DC Fire & EMS protocols would not normally allow an ambulance crew operating alone to access a train stalled between stations. That should only occur with assistance from a team of firefighters trained to follow longstanding safety procedures while operating near or on Metro’s tracks. This includes verification that electricity powering the trains has been cut. At the same time, command officers on the scene confirm these safeguards are in place while coordinating with Metro’s ROCC.

 

It wasn’t until 5:12 pm — 15 minutes after the first 911 call — that OUC finally dispatched a full complement of rescuers from DC Fire & EMS. OUC says when the rescue assignment was sent, a dispatcher initially identified the emergency as “an elevator rescue”, misreading the notation that it was an elevated train rescue. OUC indicates the misinformation was quickly corrected and did not impact the incident (audio above).

The information provided by OUC and the early radio traffic show that dispatchers didn’t initially connect or coordinate this dispatch of the nine additional fire and EMS units with Ambulance 6, dispatched to the Rhode Island Avenue Metro Station eight minutes earlier. Despite early information to the contrary, OUC appears to have treated these as two separate incidents. OUC confirms two different incident numbers were used. There was a later radio transmission where the DC Fire & EMS incident commander informs OUC what should have been obvious at the dispatch center — these two calls were the same emergency.

 

Even after fire & EMS arrived at Rhode Island Avenue, the communications from Metro was lacking. A radio transmission at 5:20 pm showed the DC Fire & EMS incident commander believed they were dealing with a decoupled train (audio above).

Since March 26, STATter911 repeatedly asked Metro and OUC to supply timelines of initial communications between the two agencies. Despite promises it was coming soon, Metro has not provided the information.

 

Metro’s own radio communications show one of its workers tried to report an injured person on the stalled train at 5:05 pm (audio above). The recording does not show a ROCC controller acknowledged that message. In addition, OUC’s timeline does not indicate a call from ROCC about an injured passenger.

Communications with fire, EMS and police is just one aspect from a series of significant safety lapses surrounding the March 26 incident. Many issues — including the train accidentally rolling away after passengers were removed — were outlined in Wiedefeld’s memo and during Tuesday’s monthly WMSC meeting. WMSC is charged with overseeing and enforcing safety at Metro. It was created in the aftermath of the 2015 L’Enfant Plaza tunnel fire that injured scores of people and killed passenger Carol Glover.

Since late 2019, WMSC has investigated a series of Metro incidents echoing many of the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) findings from the L’Enfant Plaza fire. NTSB identified problems inside both ROCC and OUC that delayed DC Fire & EMS reaching the trapped passengers.  On Tuesday, WMSC CEO David Mayer said about the Rhode Island Avenue response, “The timing of Metrorail’s calling for help from first responders in this event is a concern and part of the focus of the emergency response investigation.”

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