DC subway: Fire changes led to difficulty using radios

AP News
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Posted: Jan 22, 2015 7:46 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Firefighters had difficulty using their radios during an emergency on the Washington subway system because fire officials had made changes to their radio system without alerting their partners who oversee the subway, officials said Thursday.

The Metro transit agency's interim General Manager Jack Requa said Thursday after an agency safety board meeting that the District of Columbia's fire department did not alert his agency before making changes to its radio system.

"They made adjustments by encrypting their radios which made their radios less effective or almost non-working on our system," Requa said, adding that after Metro got access to the site where firefighters made the changes, they were able to determine what had been done and respond accordingly.

Firefighters' radios are currently working properly in the Metro system, he said.

One woman died and more than 80 others were hospitalized during the Jan. 12 incident in which an electrical malfunction brought a train to a halt inside a tunnel near a busy downtown station. The incident sent smoke into the system's L'Enfant Plaza station as well as the train that was stuck in a nearby tunnel. The cause of the malfunction is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

City officials had previously indicated firefighters were having difficulty using the radios and that Metro had been alerted on Jan. 8, days before the emergency, but the information the city released did not explain what led to the difficulty.

City fire department spokesman Timothy Wilson said Thursday that fire officials encrypted their radios in December and that Metro was notified when the problem became apparent. He said the department had no issues with encrypted radios working in Metro tunnels other than the ones at L'Enfant Plaza.

Later Thursday, Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, called on Metro and a regional governing board to work more closely with first responders to make sure radio communication is not compromised.

Metro also released a set of 10 actions it is taking following the incident. They include scheduling additional emergency drills and improving signs on the outside of rail cars so that first responders know clearly which doors should be used in an emergency. Metro said it does training for emergency responders, but it is possible that the first person on an accident scene would not have had that training. Metro will also look at the feasibility of installing smoke detectors in the tunnels between stations.

Metro is also changing its procedures so that train operators will be told to turn off air intake systems as soon as a train stops for a smoke incident. Because the issue of the smoke entering the cars is part of the NTSB investigation, Metro officials could not detail how the intake system operated during the incident. Photos and passenger accounts show smoke hanging in the cars of the train while passengers waited. The NTSB has also said there were "anomalies" with the tunnel's ventilation system, which should have been able to push out the smoke and pump in fresh air.

The Jan. 12 accident led to the first fatality the nation's second-largest rail transit network since a 2009 crash that killed eight passengers and a train operator. Metro links the nation's capital with the Maryland and Virginia suburbs and carries more than 700,000 daily passengers.

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Associated Press reporter Ben Nuckols contributed to this report.

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