Fire of­fi­cials, Metro at odds dur­ing cri­sis, NTSB finds


It was rain­ing Jan. 12 at L’En­fant Plaza when a Metro Transit Po­lice of­fi­cial walked over to a Dis­trict fire of­fi­cial’s SUV.

A tun­nel be­low L’En­fant Plaza was fill­ing with smoke, anda train was stuck in the tun­nel. Metro’s deputy po­lice chief, Mark Ol­son, wanted to el­e­vate com­mand of the in­ci­dent to D.C. Fire Capt. Lawrence Chap­man. It was not a smooth hand­off. Their dif­fi­cult ex­change is one of sev­eral com­mu­ni­ca­tions is­sues and break­downs un­der scru­tiny by the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board as it in­ves­ti­gates the cause and re­sponse to the smoke in­ci­dent that killed one pas­sen­ger and in­jured scores of oth­ers in the Yel­low Line tun­nel.

The NTSB held hear­ings and re­leased thou­sands of pages of in­ves­tiga­tive doc­u­ments last week as part of its probe. The trans­fer of au­thor­ity be­tween Metro and the Fire Depart­ment was cap­tured in in­ter­views and un­der­scores the com­mu­ni­ca­tion is­sues.

Ol­son re­called say­ing, “We have a train trapped down there with pa­trons on board and I’m very con­cerned about a self-evac­u­a­tion. We need to get evac­u­a­tion of those pa­trons started im­me­di­ately,” ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ments re­leased by the board.

Chap­man, Ol­son said, “looked over at his driver and then he said some­thing to the ef­fect of, ‘Well, I have to get my per­son­nel down there to as­sess where the smoke’s com­ing from first.’ I again stated to him, I said, ‘ We have pas­sen­gers on that train that we need to get evac­u­ated.’ He rolled up his win­dow.”

Ol­son told in­ves­ti­ga­tors that he felt it was a “shun­ning.”

Chap­man, the doc­u­ments show, had a dif­fer­ent ac­count. He re­mem­bered be­ing told “‘Well, we have an un­known fire some­where; it’s cre­at­ing this smoke con­di­tion.’ At this point, I’m start­ing to re­al­ize that they have a train stopped in the tun­nel. Now we’re talk­ing about this train car and he said, ‘Well, there’s peo­ple on it and we would like to try and move it back to the sta­tion.’ ”

Chap­man said his mind turned to the power line in the tun­nel where his crews were headed. And he wasn’t cer­tain that Metro un­der­stood the sta­tus of its own train and “whether it could be moved or not.”

Safety in­ves­ti­ga­tors did not ask Chap­man whether he rolled up his win­dow. But Chap­man said that “you can imag­ine that the en­vi­ron­ment is a lit­tle tricky to work un­der. And at times I just have to sort of shut down and say, okay, I have to con­cen­trate on what’s go­ing on right here, right now. And I think that can be taken the wrong way, shall we say?”

Far from shun­ning, Chap­man said he thought the agen­cies at the scene were “co­op­er­at­ing” and said that “if they had trou­ble com­mu­ni­cat­ing with me, I re­ally wasn’t aware of it.”

Dur­ing the two days of hear­ings last week, NTSB of­fi­cials seemed in­cred­u­lous at first re­spon­ders’ in­abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate, let alone co­op­er­ate.

“Is there any equip­ment or any rea­son why [Ol­son] could not have got­ten into the back of the ve­hi­cle, be­cause it’s pour­ing down rain?” said Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board mem­ber. He was told that yes, with a lit­tle ef­fort, there should have been a seat avail­able for him.

Sumwalt also pointed to a broader lack of co­or­di­na­tion — among Metro train con­trollers sit­ting in their sub­ur­ban Mary­land oper­a­tions cen­ter, and be­tween those con­trollers and peo­ple on the scene. “I want to know who the heck’s in charge,” Sumwalt said. The an­swer? Dif­fer­ent peo­ple were in charge at dif­fer­ent points as the cri­sis es­ca­lated and de­manded more at­ten­tion and a widen­ing emer­gency re­sponse. Yet when it was their turn to take the lead, sev­eral peo­ple in au­thor­ity made de­ci­sions that did not im­prove, and may have wors­ened, cir­cum­stances for pas­sen­gers aboard Train 302, in­ter­views and records re­leased by the NTSB show.

Train 302 came to a halt af­ter en­coun­ter­ing smoke in the tun­nel and asked Metro oper­a­tions of­fi­cials for per­mis­sion to re­verse di­rec­tion and go back to L’En­fant Plaza, NTSB ex­hibits show. That plan was thwarted, how­ever, when a sec­ond train en­tered the sta­tion and, with smoke build­ing, Metro Transit po­lice evac­u­ated pas­sen­gers and the sec­ond op­er­a­tor, leav­ing an empty train on the plat­form. Metro rail con­trollers per­sisted in plan­ning to re­verse Train 302 to the sta­tion, un­aware that Metro Transit Po­lice had re­moved the sec­ond op­er­a­tor from the sta­tion, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views.

The 6,000 pages of doc­u­ments made public by NTSB last week in­clude in­ter­views with se­nior Metro ex­ec­u­tives whose re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in­clude sys­temwide safety, power sys­tems, emer­gency ven­ti­la­tion, main­te­nance and con­trol of rail oper­a­tions — all ar­eas that have emerged as likely fac­tors in the dis­as­ter.

The NTSB in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing and has yet to de­ter­mine the prob­a­ble cause of the ac­ci­dent in a tun­nel south of the L’En­fant

Plaza Sta­tion.

Broader fire pres­ence

The Jan­uary in­ci­dent has prompted Metro to en­hance its Rail Oper­a­tions Con­trol Cen­ter (ROCC) in Lan­dover — the sys­tem’s nerve cen­ter — by agree­ing to host a fire of­fi­cial in the room on most days, not only dur­ing emer­gen­cies. Cur­rently, the Dis­trict or Prince Ge­orge’s County sends fire of­fi­cials to the ROCC when there is an in­ci­dent.

Fire de­part­ments have lob­bied for a broader pres­ence for years. The goal is a 24/7 po­si­tion, though for now it will be 40 hours a week when it launches Mon­day, with Metro cov­er­ing the cost. Be­yond im­me­di­ate crises, the on-duty fire of­fi­cial will also use the time to help im­prove train­ing for con­trollers on emer­gency com­mand and con­trol is­sues.

The agree­ment fol­lowed a post ac­ci­dent push by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Bar­bara A. Mikul­ski (D-Md.), who were dis­mayed at in­ter-agency fin­ger­point­ing af­ter the Jan. 12 catas­tro­phe. The up­dated agree­ment cov­er­ing emer­gency pro­ce­dures, signed by Metro and a dozen Washington-area fire chiefs this month, also re­quires weekly or bi­weekly test­ing of Metro­rail ra­dios and more train­ing for first re­spon­ders.

Em­bed­ding an ex­pe­ri­enced fire of­fi­cial is in­tended to bridge a gulf that has grown for years be­tween fire-res­cue per­son­nel and train con­trollers, who ex­ert far-reach­ing au­thor­ity over the sub­way.

“The con­trollers as they’re called . . . they con­trol the lines, con­trol the move­ment of trains, con­trol the sig­nal­ing. They con­trol the ven­ti­la­tion. They con­trol the third-rail power. They are in di­rect com­mu­ni­ca­tion with any­one and ev­ery­one work­ing on board that par­tic­u­lar line,” Her­cules Bal­lard, Metro’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for rail trans­porta­tion and a for­mer con­troller, said at the NTSB hear­ings.

De­spite the breadth of their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, the nor­mal work­day in the ROCC is “rel­a­tively quiet,” Bal­lard said.

But there have been prob­lems jump­ing from calm to cri­sis man­age­ment. Fire of­fi­cials from the re­gion have long voiced con­cerns that ROCC em­ploy­ees some­times lack the mind-set, ex­pe­ri­ence and safety prac­tices of their boots-on­the-ground coun­ter­parts.

There is also a well of dis­trust, emer­gency work­ers said, stem­ming from what they called Metro’s in­cli­na­tion to try to han­dle seem­ingly small safety in­ci­dents in-house rather than re­port them to 911 or fire-and-res­cue de­part­ments. Fire­fight­ers worry that such lags could en­dan­ger pas­sen­gers or res­cuers. Metro says it has scores of fire or smoke in­ci­dents each year.

On Jan. 12, the Dis­trict’s emer­gency call cen­ter first learned a train was stuck in a smoky tun­nel not from Metro but a pas­sen­ger who called 911, ac­cord­ing to a timeline pre­vi­ously re­leased by the city.

One prob­lem is in the or­ga­ni­za­tion of the ROCC, said Marc S. Bashoor, fire chief in Prince Ge­orge’s County. He headed a com­mit­tee rep­re­sent­ing fire chiefs from the re­gion in the re­cent agree­ment with Metro to add a fire slot into the ROCC.

When emer­gen­cies hap­pen in a county in­clud­ing his, Bashoor said, there is a spe­cific Emer­gency Oper­a­tions Cen­ter set up to han­dle it. At the ROCC, he said, the emer­gency is added to the em­ploy­ees’ ex­ist­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to keep the rest of the train sys­tem run­ning.

That oc­curred with con­trollers run­ning the Yel­low Line Jan. 12, who have told the NTSB that the tun­nel in­ci­dent was one of sev­eral un­usual events they were jug­gling along with reg­u­lar pas­sen­ger ser­vice.

“I un­der­stand com­pletely WMATA wants to con­tinue, and they have to con­tinue, pro­vid­ing ser­vice ev­ery­where in the sys­tem,” Bashoor said. But, he said, fire chiefs ex­pect that “when a dis­as­ter hap­pens, there has to be a switch in the mode of op­er­a­tion.”

With the smoke in­ci­dent at the L’En­fant Plaza sta­tion, “they were wor­ried about all the other things go­ing on with the sys­tem,” from mak­ing trains run on time to or­ga­niz­ing buses to shut­tle pas­sen­gers stranded by the on­go­ing in­ci­dent, Bashoor said.

“They’re multi-task­ing, do­ing a thou­sand things in the ROCC,” Bashoor said, and a fire li­ai­son would help the fo­cus by be­ing ded­i­cated to deal­ing with 911. “That link . . . we be­lieve is the key to, at a min­i­mum, pro­vid­ing ac­cu­rate and timely in­for­ma­tion we’re not get­ting on a reg­u­lar ba­sis now.”

And with bet­ter in­for­ma­tion, of­fi­cials hope, there will be bet­ter de­ci­sions.

Ol­son, the deputy chief for the transit po­lice at the scene Jan. 12, has re­tired from Metro. But in his late Jan­uary in­ter­view with fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors, he was re­flec­tive, par­tic­u­larly on Metro’s re­la­tion­ship with Dis­trict fire of­fi­cials, which he said has had cy­cles of co­op­er­a­tion and strain.

“Had we known that Jan­uary 12th this was go­ing to hap­pen, well, De­cem­ber 12th we would have been train­ing very heav­ily with the D.C. Fire Depart­ment,” Ol­son said. “We’re prob­a­bly as muchto blame as they are as far as not in­sist­ing that there be more train­ing, more con­tact with those folks that are go­ing to be re­spond­ing to these scenes and our folks who do re­spond to these scenes.”

Metro’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for rail trans­porta­tion, Her­cules Bal­lard, top right, tes­ti­fies dur­ing the NTSB hear­ing on the deadly smoke in­ci­dent that dam­aged a tun­nel, at left, near the L’En­fant Plaza sta­tion.


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