- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2000

Area fire departments and the Metrorail system have been feuding throughout the 24-year history of the transit authority, federal documents show.

Thomas N. Tippett, who resigned as interim fire chief Friday, told The Washington Times the dangerous squabbling will get worse in September when firefighters begin using a new radio system.

The system won't work in all tunnels, especially the deeper ones, unless Metro chips in to help extend the reach of the radio system.

Based on the infighting and lack of communication he has seen so far, Mr. Tippett said he is not hopeful the transit authority will help the fire department.

The subway fire on April 20 at Foggy Bottom, in which 273 riders had to be evacuated, is just the latest example of bickering and lack of teamwork, officials say.

In earlier cases, people lost their lives.

On Jan. 13, 1982, three persons were killed and 24 injured during a derailment at the Smithsonian station. Federal investigators found that D.C. firefighters and Metro officials were not talking to each other and did not pool equipment and trained manpower during the disaster.

On Nov. 8, 1985, Metro put the lives of D.C. firefighters in grave danger as they fought a fire in a subway car near the Stadium Armory station. Metro officials did not disconnect the 750 volts of electricity surging on the next track and allowed trains to keep running, according to safety officials.

Such a thing would never happen again, Metro told investigators.

The Foggy Bottom fire as well as a well-documented firefighting delay in 1995 and a fatal crash in 1996 shows little improvement has been made, though.

Metro officials blamed the confusion and lack of teamwork on the fire department's old radio system, which they say is unreliable.

Metro administrators "have known about this problem for 20 years and don't seem to care," said a senior official of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

The official said firefighters have been forced to rely on a telephone line inside the tunnels to keep in touch with rescue crews and direct firefighting operations if trouble strikes.

The jury-rigged system failed them April 20, however, because Metro changed the number for the Operations Control Center three days earlier and never told them.

D.C. emergency crews, hungry for details, kept dialing a wrong number.

Metro spokesman Ray Feldmann denied the new, crucial phone number had not been given to the D.C. Fire Department.

Fire officials are frustrated.

"We've gone back to using 20-year-old telephones [hooked together by telephone lines] because we are not relying on Metro any longer," a senior D.C. emergency official told The Times.

Metro Safety Director Fred Goodine said things have improved tremendously over the last three years when he took over the Safety Department. Funding has tripled, and there appears to be more emphasis on safety, he said.

Mr. Goodine declined to discuss the phone number change, or talk about anything that might have gone wrong during the Foggy Bottom fire. He said his office is still investigating the matter.

"As far as procedurally, everything went well. Our people and the firefighters did well. We had close to 300 people evacuated from a train, and no one was injured. That was a positive outcome," Mr. Goodine said.

Mr. Tippett said he won't stop trying to improve communications between the two agencies, even if he is on his way out the door.

He said he will make a stab at convincing Metro General Manager Richard White to provide some or all of the $2 million needed to make the firefighters' radios operable in the subway tunnels.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams supports the idea of Metro contributing money for radio improvements, said his spokeswoman, Peggy Armstrong.

Metro's spats are not limited to D.C.'s fire and rescue units.

On May 10, 1996, the electrified third rail short-circuited at the Pentagon City station and sent a fireball four miles down the track to the Mount Vernon Square-UDC station.

Arlington County firefighters had to wait 40 minutes for a Metro official to show up at the station before they could begin fighting the fire.

The reason: Arlington fire officials said they couldn't be sure power to the tracks had been turned off as promised.

During the April 20 fire, Metro didn't call the D.C. Fire Department until 13 minutes after the first reports of smoke billowing out of the tunnels and 11 minutes after the train operator reported seeing smoke.

When Metro did call, firefighters said Metro couldn't tell them in detail where the fire was. So more time was lost finding the fire.

Also, when D.C. Fire and Emergency Emergency Services personnel got into the subway tunnels, they were pointed in different directions by Metro officials, which delayed the evacuation of the passengers.

"They seemed more worried about getting service started again than getting those people out," said a fire department official involved in the rescue.

The senior official told The Times the Metro managers on the scene couldn't decide if another train could, or should, be sent to evacuate the people from the stalled train.

"We were receiving all of those mixed signals," said a fire department official.

"We made a decision that if Metro can't get their act together and tell us they can do one thing or another, we're going to do what's best and evacuate the train," he said.

Mr. Feldmann denied Metro was uncertain in the face of danger.

He said it was the fire officials who were reluctant to use a rescue train because they didn't know if a search party of firefighters was on the tracks.

They didn't want to risk electrocuting the firefighters, Mr. Feldmann said.

Mr. Goodine said communication should get better when Metro builds the nation's first fire-training center ever constructed by a transit authority. The center will simulate emergencies inside trains and buses.

He said the $1 million center will have actual subway cars and appear to be inside a tunnel.

He also said Metro is the only transit authority to provide to firefighters alarms that go off if the third rail is activated while firefighters are on the tracks.

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