Report finds safety still compromised during Metro emergencies

A look at Metro safety finds the agency has greatly improved its handling of emergency situations, but said there are still too many instances of disorganization — where the right procedures are either not put in place, or aren’t followed.

The audit released Tuesday by the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission “identifies critical areas where Metro is not meeting its own requirements or doesn’t have adequate procedures or training or coordination,” said WMSC spokesman Max Smith, who previously covered Metro for WTOP.

Overall, things are noticeably better compared to 2015, when a deadly incident on the Green Line exposed severe gaps in Metro’s emergency response.

“There were a number of findings related to the way Metro coordinates either with first responders or within its own organization,” Smith said. “And areas where either Metro is not following the appropriate procedures, or where there aren’t the appropriate procedures in place that could be followed to make Metro as safe as it could possibly be.”

In many circumstances, the Metro Transit Police are supposed to take command during emergencies. But that doesn’t always happen, and when it does, the officers on scene aren’t always properly trained for their surroundings. Sometimes that involves incidents on the tracks, where very few MTPD personnel are properly trained to be.

“That exposes them, as the people who are there to help customers evacuate in an emergency, or to help address dangerous situations, to the risk of injury or death,” said Smith.

Other areas for improvement highlighted in the report include protocols for calls made to 911 by Metro personnel. The report cites a lack of a “script” to help Metro workers provide the fastest and best possible information about a developing incident.

“If you imagine where you’re working, there are things you say all the time that nobody outside your office would have any clue what you’re talking about,” Smith said. “When you make a 911 call, that 911 operator has all sorts of different experience, but probably doesn’t have the experience of working in the Rail Operations Control Center and knowing all this technical terminology of Metro.”

The report notes times where Metro staff called 911 and used terms such as “the roadway” to describe the track bed underground, which is not common parlance. In other instances, Metro workers never identified themselves as employees of Metro when they called 911.

“There’s certainly an opportunity to make these calls more efficient, to get response more quickly and to provide all of the information needed to get a consistent and complete and effective response,” said Smith.

Another potentially serious misstep focuses on the failure to include subject matter experts ahead of time before projects begin. In particular, it documents an underground ventilation project where fire safety inspectors weren’t included in the planning, and then weren’t consulted when a different hazard was introduced during the scramble to address the original situation.

“Overall, the finding is, ‘Coordinate to address these so that we prevent problems from occurring before they happen,'” Smith said.

He also said some emergency response equipment was found to be either outdated or covered in dirt when it was inspected.

In all, there are five recommendations and 14 findings that Metro has to address. It has 30 days to come up with plans to address everything in the report, though in some cases work in that direction has already started, since the WMSC often consults with Metro during the creation of these audits.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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