Montgomery County firefighters have responded to 62 emergency situations in Metro stations over the last three years, the vast majority of which had to do with reported or actual arcing insulators.
MCFRS Acting Chief Scott Goldstein provided that number and talked about the protocol for responding to an arcing insulator during a Thursday hearing before the Council’s Transportation Committee.
Committee Chair Roger Berliner called the meeting after the Jan. 12 death of a Metro passenger near the L’Enfant Plaza station. Passengers were reportedly stranded on a stopped train for 45 minutes to an hour as smoke from an arcing insulator entered the train cars. Carol Inman Glover, 61, died as a result of the smoke and almost 80 others required medical treatment.
While a National Transportation Safety Board investigation is ongoing, various media reports have indicated confusion between D.C. firefighters and Metro when it came to entering the tunnel where the train was stopped.
With known arcing insulator troubles in the Red Line tunnel in Bethesda, Berliner wanted to know if MCFRS was adequately prepared to avoid the same pitfalls.
Goldstein pointed to the Grosvenor-Strathmore, Medical Center and Bethesda stations as the source of 23 of the fire department’s 62 Metro-related calls over the last three years. He estimated 42 or 43 of those events were related to smoking insulators or brakes, either called in by Metro itself or by a passenger through 911.
Goldstein said while MCFRS has command of a situation once it arrives on-scene, some reports aren’t specific enough to merit going into the tunnels right away.
“We’ve had an event or two where we’ve communicated about the nature of the problem and it’s still unknown,” Goldstein said. “Sometimes the information is that there’s smoke in the tunnel. With that being the case, we’re going to wait for the arrival of [Metro’s] experts to join us when we go into the tunnel.”
When asked about the L’Enfant Plaza situation, Goldstein was careful not to pass blame on D.C. firefighters or WMATA. Initial reports about the fire response indicated problems with the department’s radio communications.
“Two-hundred feet, below grade in a concrete canyon trying to get your radio waves to work is a challenge,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein said MCFRS tests a series of radio amplifiers installed in Metro tunnels every two weeks, but there can be a gap between the department’s reporting of a problem and WMATA getting a contractor to it for troubleshooting.
If a radio amplifier isn’t working, Goldstein said Montgomery County firefighters are trained to put a portable radio inside the tunnel or work a radio relay system in which a firefighter will communicate with the next closest firefighter, all the way up to the incident commander if necessary.
Because of a tunnel leaking problem just outside of Bethesda’s Medical Center station, arcing insulators are a fairly common problem for Montgomery County Red Line riders.
In October, WMATA announced it will shut down the Red Line at the Grosvenor, Medical Center and Bethesda stations for 14 weekends starting in the summer or fall of 2016 to fix the tunnel.
Goldstein said that in some cases, firefighters have arrived after a Metro maintenance supervisor got rid of the problem by using a fire extinguisher.
He also said MCFRS traditionally sends more of its firefighters to Metro-specific training exercises than any other D.C. area jurisdiction.
In 2014, MCFRS sent 435 personnel to Metro’s Landover training ground, where they’re able to train in a mock tunnel and on actual Metro cars.
There are also 12 MCFRS lieutenants and captains that make up a group of “Rail Liaison Officers,” who Goldstein described as “rail buffs” who are experts on heavy and light rail and who go to the scene of reported arcing insulators.
Berliner initially requested the presence of WMATA officials at Thursday’s hearing. But WMATA officials are expected to give a briefing to the regional Council of Governments on Feb. 11. It’s also unlikely they’ll be willing to discuss specifics of the L’Enfant Plaza incident with the ongoing NTSB investigation.
Photo via Metro