UPDATE - Radios Hampered Response to D. C. Metro Fire

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[Fair Use: For Education and Research Purpose Only] Title: Radios Hampered Response to Metro Fire By Lyndsey Layton


Tuesday, May 2, 2000; Page A01

Trapped passengers could have been rescued and subway service restored in 70 minutes instead of four hours, if the telephones and radios of the D.C. fire department had not repeatedly cut out or temporarily gone dead, Metro officials said yesterday in a review of the April 20 tunnel fire.

Firefighters who rushed to the tunnel between the Farragut West and Foggy Bottom stations shortly after 5 p.m. found themselves in a "communications blackout," unable to talk to each other on their hand-held radios or to Metro officials on their cellular telephones, said Fred Goodine, Metro's chief safety officer. Fire officials say they still don't know what caused the problems.

Fire officials working with bad or incomplete information made decisions that stranded passengers for hours and disrupted the entire rail system through the evening, Goodine said.

"If their equipment was working, we could have had discussions between Metro, [the fire department] commanders and their people in the stations and made the best decisions based on all the information," he said. "In a perfect world, if everything ran smoothly, we're talking an hour and 10 minutes instead of four hours."

At one point, firefighters put down their dead radios and cellular telephones and used runners to pass messages from rescuers on the tracks to commanders on the street above the Farragut West and Foggy Bottom stations.

Soon after firefighters escorted a woman and her asthmatic daughter from the end car of the subway train marooned in the tunnel east of the Foggy Bottom station, the news reached fire officials as a report that the woman and girl had decided to leave the train on their own and were wandering together somewhere in the smoky tunnel, Goodine said.

That raised concerns among firefighters that a number of people--Metro workers, firefighters and, perhaps, passengers--were scattered on the tracks. And until they had accounted for everyone, they worried about restoring the 750 volts that feed the third rail and power the subway trains.

While fire officials contend they handled the fire as well as possible, they said yesterday they will use World War II-style field telephones the next time they have to respond to a subterranean fire. The military phones, powered by transmitters and connected by spools of cable, can reach through the tunnels and into a subway station, D.C. Fire Capt. Brian Lee said.

Lee, a fire department spokesman, said the chaos that swirled around the scene had nothing to do with the fact that the firefighters could not communicate with each other or with Metro officials.

"We had 273 passengers aboard that train," Lee said. "There's a certain amount of normal human confusion."

Lee said the fire department offers no apologies for the way it handled the subway fire.

"From our standpoint, safety comes first," he said, noting that no one was seriously injured in the fire, which was quickly extinguished.

The last of the passengers stranded in the Virginia-bound Blue Line train was evacuated at 7:55 p.m., three hours after the train stopped near the scene of a fire in the side of the tunnel used by westbound trains. Fourteen passengers were treated for injuries. Power was restored to the track at 8:18 p.m., and normal service resumed at 8:53 p.m.

Goodine said Metro officials are still investigating the cause of the fire but are fairly confident they have traced it to an installation fluke--the unusual way the power cable was laid in the Foggy Bottom tunnel in 1979. The only other place in the Metro system where the cable was similarly installed is in the same spot on the eastbound side of the tunnel.

Metro crews are making changes to the stretch of rail with the unusual installation to prevent any further damage or a new fire, Goodine said. And they are using a heat-imaging camera to "take the temperature" of the rest of the electric cable that runs throughout the subway system, looking for conduit that is overheating, Goodine said.

Metro has its own police force but relies on the fire departments in the District and suburbs to respond to fires or accidents along the system.

In the days since the April 20 fire, Metro and the D.C. fire department have met to figure out ways to improve communication.

The fire department plans to spend $1.7 million to install new antennas throughout the Metro subway tunnels and stations to improve the firefighters' radio communication, Lee said.

In addition, Metro has dedicated two telephone lines to the D.C. fire department so firefighters can have direct telephone contact with Metro. During future fires or accidents, a fire official will be posted in Metro's operations control center to act as another communications link to the transit agency, Goodine said.

Also, Metro plans to open a fire training center in Landover, where firefighters can practice in a simulated subway tunnel.

Metro officials said the communications problems prevented the transit agency and the fire department from discussing what Metro believed was the best solution for the trapped passengers: Their six-car train could have been backed into the Farragut West station, where the passengers could have stepped out to the safety of the platform, Goodine said.

Meanwhile, he said, train service could have continued on the other set of tracks through the tunnel, allowing trains on the Blue and Orange lines to continue running on a single track around the problem area.

Metro recommended the train be moved into the station, said Ray Feldmann, a Metro spokesman. Fire officials said that because of communications problems, they could not account for all their people on the track. They ordered the evacuation, which was slow and painstaking, Feldmann said. Passengers walked 400 feet along the rails until they reached Foggy Bottom.

Fire officials also kept electric power in the eastbound side shut down, severing the Blue and Orange lines and creating delays that rippled throughout the subway system for hours afterward.

"From Metro's standpoint, they would have liked to run another train," Lee said. "But the safety of the citizens, the fire department personnel and Metro personnel is our highest priority. The third rail power remains shut down in any place that we're going to be operating. This is one of the worst-case scenarios that could happen. And things went fairly smoothly, and we consider it a success, even if it did highlight some communication problems."



-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), May 02, 2000

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