Ventilation fans are being blamed in the January 12 Metro train accident that claimed the life of one woman and hospitalized more than 80 others after an electrical malfunction caused a train to fill with smoke. The accident occurred inside a tunnel near the busy L’Enfant Plaza station during the early evening rush hour.
Reports have also shown that a failure in radio communications between firefighters and transit dispatchers may have slowed the emergency response. During the initial investigation, it was revealed that subway officials waited seven minutes before calling 911 and never said passengers were trapped. Recent reports also revealed that while rescuers were working to evacuate passengers, firefighters below ground were unable to clearly communicate by radio with commanders outside.
According to Metro’s interim general manager, Jack Requa, several days before the incident, the fire department changed the way its radio signals operate, but failed to inform Metro of the change. After a January 7 debris fire at the L’Enfant Plaza station, it was discovered that the radios were not working properly. Metro who spent the weekend trying to determine the cause of the problem. Hours before the January 12 incident, radio engineers still had no answers; a meeting with fire officials was scheduled for January 14. That meeting never happened.
While it remains unclear as to what extent the new encryption code may have contributed to the January 12 tragedy, Metro says it has made modifications to allow the system to work with the changed encryption codes formally made by the fire department. As the investigation continues, Metro also released several other actions it is taking, including:
- Installing new “low smoke/low halogen” jumper cables in the subway and “mechanical protection on third-rail jumper cables that may be exposed to wear from vibration against other materials.”
- 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.
- Feasibility of installing smoke detectors in the tunnels between stations.
- Changing procedures to allow train operators to turn off the air intake system as soon as a train stops for a smoke incident, without having to receive authorization from the rail operations control center.
- Many people have come to rely on our subways and commuter trains.
This latest incident has only brought renewed concern for millions of people who have come to rely on our subways and commuter trains. The 9/11 attacks reshaped many facets of life in America; changes made out of concern for the safety of the American people. One change included the government spending hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade first responders’ communication networks, so why was there a communication breakdown on January 12? Public safety radio systems are individualistic. Agencies often upgrade their systems, but there is no mandatory requirement to notify other agencies. If so, one grandmother may be alive today, despite the Metro equipment malfunction. Changes must be made – NOW! The government owes it to the American people to make safety is top priority BEFORE tragedies like this happen.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.