DC's Metro Calamity: A Lesson in Preparation and Response

DC's Metro Calamity: A Lesson in Preparation and Response
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Earlier this year, members of Congress voiced their frustration during a recent House Oversight Committee hearing, blasting the subway system of our nation's capital for an event deemed "entirely predictable" and a major sign of "weakness." What were they referring to? On Jan. 12, smoke filled the DC Metro tracks, stranding passengers, sending dozens to the hospital and killing Carol Glover, a 61-year-old mother and grandmother. DC Metro's biggest disaster since a 2009 collision that left nine dead, revelations about the minute-by-minute handling of the incident by first responders have raised serious questions about DC's ability to respond to an even greater, more catastrophic event.

What started this unfortunate chain of events? A tripped electrical breaker created smoke that engulfed the tunnel near DC Metro's L'Enfant Plaza, causing a six-car train that had just departed the station to abruptly stop on the tracks. Its passengers were left stranded on a stalled train, in the middle of a tunnel, receiving mixed messages from the conductor and with little information on what was really happening. The 911 dispatcher didn't receive a call until seven minutes after the train first stopped - that's 12 minutes after the breaker tripped. And the first EMS unit didn't arrive at the station until 40 minutes after the train stalled. Yet this slow response was just the tip of a troubling iceberg.

An incident report released by the District of Columbia in the aftermath showcased the profound dysfunction in the response protocols. First, the Metro employees who called 911 to report the smoke never notified the dispatcher of the stalled train - vital information that would have changed the type of response by firefighters, paramedics and police when deployed to the station. Second, once first responders arrived and descended into the Metro tunnels, their radios were virtually inoperable - firefighters were unable to communicate with their colleagues above ground and call for additional manpower to evacuate train passengers. This alone would be troubling enough, if not compounded by the distressing fact that just four days earlier, Metro officials were informed that emergency radios lacked connection in the tunnels - a problem that should have been rectified immediately but instead was ignored.

If this kind of crisis is to be avoided in the future, officials in DC must immediately move to rectify the multiple problems that were uncovered during the Jan. 12 incident. This includes the adoption of new safety protocols and equipment overhauls to safeguard DC residents, tourists and Metro passengers. Fortunately, there are lessons to be learned from other cities that have identified and overcome similar obstacles.

Take, for example, New York City's own moment of truth after the horrific 9/11 attacks. During the emergency evacuation of the Twin Towers, police and firefighters were unable to communicate with each other via their radios, and with cellular service down and both towers engulfed in flames, confusion ensued. Many heroic first responders lost their lives, unaware of the events surrounding them largely because vital, life-saving information wasn't able to come through communication channels.

Detailed accounts on the specific communications and coordination failures have been reported since, and to its credit, New York City has taken monumental steps to address these shortcomings and better prepare for future disasters, whether caused by a terrorist attack, mass transit episode or extreme weather event. Among them, the NYC Office of Emergency Management, working with first responders, has improved underground communications capabilities on subway tracks, conducted daily roll calls with radio equipment to test operability, and produced a field operation guide for emergency personnel to use should another catastrophe arise. The list of upgrades and improvements made by New York City is prolific, making the city far better prepared than it was 14 years ago for a mega disaster.

Leaders in DC and other metropolitan communities should turn to places like New York City for answers on how to correct the inadequacies made evident by the Metro smoke mishap. Just imagine if there had been not just smoke, but an actual fire on the tracks, or if a bomb had been detonated in the heart of our nation's capital. A similarly blundered response would all but surely have resulted in a greater loss of life and exposed even more vulnerabilities.

Nothing can be done to return Carol Glover to her grieving family, and there are limitations to reversing the trauma left on other victims. However, the individuals affected and the public at large should be assured that the conditions that led to the tragedy in DC's Metro are identified and addressed as rapidly and effectively as possible.

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