Firefighters Reported Radio Problems at Washington D.C. Subway Incident

By JESSICA GRESKO | January 20, 2015

Firefighters responding to an electrical malfunction on the Washington subway system had difficulty communicating by radio and some had to use cellphones instead, according to a preliminary report released by the city Saturday.

The report says fire officials notified transit officials of a problem with radio coverage in the L’Enfant Plaza station on Jan. 8, four days before the malfunction near the station, which caused heavy smoke. The report also adds detail to a timeline the city previously released.

One person died and more than 80 were taken to the hospital during Monday’s incident. A train inside a tunnel filled with smoke, and the smoke also affected riders at the nearby L’Enfant Plaza station, which is just south of the National Mall.

An email chain included in the 37-page report about the fire department’s response shows transit officials were contacted Jan. 8 about a radio coverage problem at the station. The transit agency had been doing work on the communication system and believed it was working, though problems in tunnel areas continued, a transit employee responded the same day.

The employee wrote that officials were “having trouble with the tunnel areas which we are troubleshooting. The stations seem fine.” It was not clear whether the transit agency felt everything was working properly on its end by Monday’s incident or whether fire officials returned to test the radios as promised in another email.

The report says fire officials’ radios could still function as walkie-talkies, meaning they could communicate short distances, but what they were saying wasn’t being broadcast so anyone listening to the radio could hear. One firefighter who helped evacuate passengers stuck on the smoke-filled train near the station said in an e-mail included in the report that radio communications were “nonexistent” in the tunnel.

The firefighter also suggested that the kind of cars that made up the train may have led passengers to wait for rescuers rather than evacuating themselves. In four of the train’s six cars, the way to get doors to open is not obvious and requires loosening screws on a panel above the door, the firefighter wrote. Passengers have also said the train operator told them to stay on the train.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser declined Saturday to blame the communications issue on transit officials or the fire department.

“We think that there are obviously things that need to be improved around communication, around equipment, and that’s what I think that the report shows,” she said.

Saturday’s report also added detail to a timeline of the event the city released earlier in the week. Both timelines say a fire rescue squad was at the station about 10 minutes after the first report of smoke there, at 3:31 p.m. But the new report says it then took rescuers four minutes to get to the train platform and that they then entered the tunnel to get to the train, reaching it at about 3:40 p.m.

That would seem to conflict with earlier reports that first responders waited before entering the tunnel because they were uncertain about whether power to the third rail, which provides powers to the train, had been shut down.

“It was while the rescue operation was underway that the Battalion Fire Chief, at 3:44 p.m., received confirmation from WMATA that power to the area had been disabled,” the report says.

The same firefighter who provided the report about the train doors wrote that the rescue squad asked about power being shut down when they arrived at the station platform, were told it was and entered the tunnel.

The report suggests that it was a second group of arriving firemen that was concerned about third rail power when they heard trains still running, despite using emergency boxes to disable power to the tracks themselves. They asked for confirmation that power had been shut down.

The city’s earlier timeline had also suggested that the first ambulance arrived on the scene nearly an hour after smoke was reported, though city officials said ambulances were there sooner. Saturday’s report says an ambulance was at the L’Enfant Plaza station 17 minutes after smoke was reported there.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident and the city also intends to produce a fuller report.

“The DC Government’s report is only one part of the emergency response, and it will be examined with all the evidence in the context of the investigation,” the NTSB said in a statement Saturday.

An NTSB preliminary report issued Friday also discussed power to the third rail. The power in the area of the smoke remained on until about 3:50 p.m. when transit officials remotely switched it off, the NTSB’s report said.

The NTSB has said that the smoke was caused by electrical “arcing,” which happens when electricity from the third rail comes into contact with another substance that conducts electricity, such as water.

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