- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2000

Firefighters and emergency personnel put their lifesaving skills to the test at a mock train collision in Northeast D.C. yesterday, but they got mixed reviews from "injured" volunteer victims.

The volunteer victims of a staged three-train collision reported that paramedics were late reaching them and didn't even look at their "wounds," created with cosmetics. They just hoisted them onto stretchers and hustled them away.

The paramedics from departments around the region also forgot to give some victims oxygen, which, under the ground rules of the drill meant the volunteers had to be considered as having "passed out."

"It looked like some didn't take it seriously," said Emily Grant, 14, of Montgomery County, Md., one of about 30 volunteer victims provided by the Montgomery County First Aid Unit. "Some just walked into the trains and started talking to us, asking how we were doing."

The three-hour exercise took place on rail tracks east of Fifth and V streets NE, one of the few places where Amtrak, CSX, Metrorail and MARC trains converge during the day.

The drill involved a three-train "collision" among a Metro car carrying 15 riders, a MARC train carrying 17 persons and a CSX freight train carrying hazardous chemicals that spilled into the two commuter trains.

Could rescue workers and safety crews from three different transportation lines cooperate with one another during such an emergency? That was the question the drill was designed to answer.

The volunteer victims think the 8 a.m. exercise exposed some flaws.

"Some [rescue workers] took it too lightly," said Becky McDermitt, 17, of Montgomery County. "They should have acted like this was a real event. They didn't evaluate my injuries and didn't even look at the scar that I had on my stomach when they wheeled me out. They also forgot to bring in oxygen so I had to pass out."

The drill, called "Common Corridor 2000," was held in a field where railroad tracks used by MARC, Metrorail and CSX run side by side. No Metro stops along Metro's Orange Line were disrupted during the exercise. The CSX freight trains used another track to get around the scene.

"It's a good exercise because we can find out what to expect and what else we need to do during an emergency like this," said Battalion Fire Chief Geoffrey Grambo, with the D.C. Fire and Rescue. "This will give us an idea of what went well, what went bad. All those issues will help us down the road."

Most problems yesterday resulted from the different radio frequencies the departments use, officials said.

"Some of the messages didn't get relayed in time to all those involved," D.C. Deputy Fire Chief James Martin said. But, he said, all jurisdictions will soon communicate with one another on one frequency.

Also, some supervisors had trouble identifying officials from other jurisdictions at the scene of the "wreck."

At one point, a Montgomery County firefighter asked a D.C. fire official to point out a supervisor to whom he needed to answer. The D.C. fire official couldn't help the firefighter because he didn't know what the supervisor looked like.

"There were a few communication problems among the different agencies, but all in all we think it went pretty smoothly," Chief Grambo said. "We know what we're doing, but there could be some improvement in the communication process, like to whom personnel should respond to."

Afterward, several volunteers wondered why some of rescue crews didn't seem to take the drill seriously.

Tineke Kordell, 15, of Gaithersburg, Md., said she hopes that the crews' response would be different during a real emergency. "I would hope they would move a lot faster than they did," she said.

However, others like Ray Boss said the crews did the best they could to help the passengers. "They did a good job overall," said Ray, 15, of Montgomery County. "This is really to teach them how to conduct themselves when an emergency occurs."

Chief Martin said he hadn't heard any volunteers complain about the efforts. "During a drill, you don't have a heightened life-threatening situation, so time is not of the essence," he said. "We think the crews did a fairly good job."

Fire officials said they are confident their crews would do well in a real-life emergency, which most likely would not occur on an early Sunday morning when MARC doesn't even run any trains and Metro has low ridership.

"It would be more chaotic," Chief Grambo said. "Everything almost takes care of itself during an emergency situation. The crews know what to do. They won't panic."

Officials said they will continue to hold drills so emergency crews can improve their skills.

"You can never really predict an emergency, but you can do simulations, which would prepare them to respond to such an emergency," said Cheryl Johnson, a Metrorail spokeswoman. "It's better to do simulations with the hopes of being prepared than never have one before."

The rescue-crew members came from the District; Montgomery, Prince George's and Frederick counties in Maryland; and Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William counties and Alexandria in Virginia.

The crews, who were on-duty at the time, knew about the drill, but didn't know when or where it was going to happen, Chief Martin said.

Officials chose to hold the drill on a Sunday morning so the activity would cause little disturbance to commuters, businesses and Metro riders.

"We wanted to hold it on a non-revenue morning," Chief Martin said. "We wanted to hold it on a day when it would cause the least interference. We wanted to do it when it was most convenient."

The drill began at 8 a.m. when a dispatcher announced over police radio that three trains, two of them carrying passengers, had collided and one of them was leaking ammonia and sulfuric acid.

It took emergency crews less than three hours to identify the chemicals involved, decontaminate the area and rescue 32 passengers who were on board the MARC and Metro trains. Two of the passengers "died" of trauma, officials said.

"It's a good learning experience," said Paul Roddy, assistant division engineer of structures for Amtrak. "You much rather learn these skills under these kinds of circumstances, rather than during a real-life emergency. So these exercises will always be important."

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