- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

An "unacceptable" 32-minute response to Saturday's emergency drill at the Capital Heights Metro station was caused by confusion over which fire department to call, Metro officials said yesterday.
Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann said the subway dispatcher should have contacted the fire departments for the District of Columbia, Montgomery and Prince George's counties (Md.) during the drill. The Capital Heights station lies on the border between the District and Prince George's County.
"When [the Metro dispatcher] called the D.C. fire department, the D.C. fire department did not call Prince George's County," Mr. Feldmann said. "We assumed that D.C. would notify PG, but that did not happen and we had to go back and call PG"
In Saturday's mock emergency, the station's operations control center was notified at 7:52 a.m. that a train had driven over a worker, and that 10 persons were injured.
Prince George's County fire crews did not arrive until 8:16 a.m. Since the drill began at 7:44 a.m., the response time was 32 minutes "unacceptable" by safety standards.
"We did drop the ball in not notifying Prince George's County," said Metro safety chief Fred Goodine, adding that the drill should have been treated as if an actual disaster had occurred.
Mr. Goodine noted that the Prince George's fire department, which has a fire house a half-mile from the Capital Heights station, could have been at the scene in 90 seconds.
"I don't think [the Metro dispatcher] forgot. I don't think he was aware of the jurisdictional boundaries," Mr. Goodine said. "They should have called Prince George's first, then D.C. and then Montgomery County."
At least 10 stations in the subway system have multijurisdictional agreements in place that call for all surrounding fire departments to respond, he said.
Meanwhile, Metro officials met with fire chiefs from the District, Maryland and Virginia to revamp a 10-day-old policy of shutting down the subway for every report of smoke in tunnels.
The meeting was held after portions of the subway were shut down five times since June 5, when the Metro board approved an emergency policy forbidding trains to enter areas where smoke or fire is found.
The board approved the policy after being told that Metro officials used a passenger-filled train as a probe to investigate a fire near the Foggy Bottom station on April 20. Metro did not contact the D.C. fire department, which received its first calls about the fire from passengers using cellular telephones.
Metro General Manager Richard White said the new policy establishes a balance that will keep passengers safe and at the same time not inconvenience them.
"It is the best of both worlds," Mr. White said. "It [the emergency policy] was undo caution."
Mr. White said he has no idea why so many fires were reported in such a short time other than to say that employees have become more cautious since tunnels fires have become such a public issue.
"Our employees are being more diligent," Mr. White said.
Metro has about 30 minor fires in its tunnels each year.
Mr. Goodine said the new policy requires that the fire department be called every time smoke or fire is reported along the subway. He said Metro workers will try to find the cause of smoke and extinguish any fires while waiting for the fire department.
In the past, the fire department would be called only if Metro workers could not control a fire.
Mr. Goodine said the new policy will require train operators to unload passengers before entering a tunnel where smoke or fire is found and then enter the area to investigate the cause. The operator then would find the source of the smoke and attempt to extinguish it.
When firefighters arrive, he said, only the tracks that are affected will be shut down, allowing train operations in both directions to continue on the other track.
Interim D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe said firefighters will continue to respond to any report of smoke or fire, even if Metro says it has controlled the incident. "I think this will improve the reaction time," Chief Ellerbe said.

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