- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 5, 2015

D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services union representatives said Thursday that first responders would be better served using cellphones to communicate in Metro stations due to long-term problems with radio systems within the transit system.

The comments came as part of a roundtable hearing by the D.C. Council’s public safety committee to learn more about the events that led up to a fatal Jan. 12 incident in which passengers became stuck inside a disabled Metro train in a smoke-filled tunnel.

“You’ll be better using your cellphone,” said Kenneth Lyons, president of the union that represents civilian paramedics in the fire department. “I don’t think that’s changed since the incident.”

First responders who entered the Metro tunnel to evacuate trapped passengers did resort to cellphones and walkie-talkies after they were unable to communicate via radio — a problem Metro and fire officials discovered and were working to fix in the days before the Jan. 12 incident.

Edward Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, said radio tests to uncover “dark spots” have increased since the incident, but he added that the problems are not unique to Metro tunnels, as firefighters also have had problems using radios inside thick-walled federal complexes and in basements of large buildings.

“We have radio problems throughout the city, not just in the Metro system,” Mr. Smith said.

Asked by D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, what the department’s alternative is for scenarios in which firefighters’ radios fail, Mr. Smith said the department’s backup plan is to pass messages down the line of responders much like in the game telephone.

One woman died and more than 80 people were hospitalized as a result of the smoke incident. A report by District officials indicates passengers waited, coughing and gasping for clean air, for at least 30 minutes until first responders reached them and began an evacuation.

Mr. Smith indicated at Thursday’s hearing that the emergency response was flawed from the start as there was a 14-minute lag between the time initial reports were received and when firefighters were dispatched to the L’Enfant Plaza station.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, has said the smoke was caused by “electrical arcing,” which occurs when something comes in contact with the train’s high-voltage third rail. Due to the investigation, city and agency officials are restricted in what they can discuss about the incident, and officials at Thursday’s hearing at times indicated they could not address council members’ questions without running afoul of an agreement with the NTSB.

“When I walk on the subway system, are the conditions that caused that accident fixed?” said D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, at the outset of the hearing. “Are you safe when you board the Metro system today?”

Metro and public safety officials indicated that additional training and radio testing are taking place in the wake of the incident.

Kevin Donahue, the District’s deputy city administrator, said Thursday that officials have stepped up testing of radios within the Metro system and found nine locations on the Red, Blue, Orange and Green lines where radios failed. Subsequent testing the week of Jan. 31 found only one site on the Blue line where radios failed.

Meanwhile, interim Fire Chief Eugene Jones said the fire department is stepping up its training schedule and incorporating use of Metro’s training facility in Landover in order to familiarize first responders with emergency response procedures within the system. Only 100 fire department employees received training at the facility last year.

Three engine companies were sent to the training facility Wednesday, said Chief Jones, who estimates the department responds to an average of three to four incidents a month inside Metro stations.

Metro officials said they can’t require jurisdictions to train at their facility, but they work to make it available when desired for training exercises. During a full-scale exercise, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said hundreds of participants could receive training.

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