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The public has a right to know what's going on with the streetcar

Earlier this month, DDOT's director suggested that the streetcar might have too many problems to ever start revenue service. But even after months of delays and several missed opening dates, the public still doesn't know what the actual problems are. We deserve to know.

Photo by DearEdward on Flickr.

At a DC Council hearing on March 7th, DDOT director Leif Dormsjo, who started in January, said he's waiting on an external review to decide "whether there's a pathway to passenger service" for the streetcar. That's as far as he went, declining to share specifics about what, exactly, might be so catastrophic as to warrant canceling the H Street line altogether.

The biggest problem with the streetcar is how little we know about it

We do know that there are some unresolved Federal Transit Administration safety recommendations, but they all appear to be easy fixes. We also know that DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (DC FEMS), which is the state safety oversight agency in charge of approving the streetcar's safety program, has concerns, as they still have not approved passenger service. But nobody at DC FEMS has shared their concerns with the public, either.

The issues could be easy to fix, like a need to add more signs or pavement markings. Or they could be more serious. The public has no way of knowing, and nobody at DDOT or DC FEMS is talking. That's unacceptable.

After so many broken promises from Mayor Gray, it makes sense that Dormsjo has resolved not to make rosy promises or predict opening dates. In that vein, taking a couple of months to figure out what's wrong is reasonable. But canceling a massive program for seemingly no reason, and amidst such deafening silence, is an entirely different matter, and one that would not be justifiable.

Other major projects in the region set a precedent for transparency

When the Silver Line was delayed, we knew why. There was a well-circulated list of 33 unfinished items, regular conference calls between WMATA and journalists, and several public hearings on the matter. Similarly, the public knows what the problems are with the long-delayed Silver Spring Transit Center.

Why is the Bowser administration refusing to talk about what's causing the streetcar's delay?

If DDOT continues to keep the public out of the loop and the streetcar does open, how can we have any confidence that never-named problems got the attention they deserved? And if DDOT stays quiet and the line doesn't open, how can we trust this administration to competently follow through on any of its other promises?

Muriel Bowser ran on a campaign of community engagement and support for the H Street line. She pledged to "push for the most open and transparent administration possible." It's time for Bowser and her administration to turn that promise into a reality.


What went wrong with Metro's emergency response?

Last Monday's Metro incident left one person dead and many hospitalized. While the National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed that the smoke came from an electrical arcing event, there's still a lot we don't know about why passengers trapped in the tunnel couldn't get out more quickly.

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Initial reports indicate that while Train 302's operator and DC Fire and EMS (DCFEMS) followed established protocols, poor communication within Metro and between Metro and DCFEMS caused the slow evacuation. Additionally, issues with the ventilation system may have worsened the smoke.

If we're going to look at how effective and efficient both Metro and DCFEMS were in responding, it helps to have context for what an emergency response for this kind of situation should look like.

Emergency response took far longer than it should have

Metro's procedures require that a train operator immediately report smoke or fire in the trackbed to the Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC). When this happens, ROCC is responsible for calling the fire department, which generally starts the process of getting emergency responders to the scene.

Fires along the Metro tracks are usually caused by the third rail, which provides the electrical power needed to move the train. Accordingly, Metro policy dictates that the ROCC shut off third rail power as soon as possible. However, Metro's procedures do allow for ROCC to leave power on long enough to allow the train to retreat back to the previous station (if the operator is able to stop short of the smoke) or continue to the next station (if the train has already passed the smoke).

It appears that Metro may have left the third rail energized for so long because Train 302's operator was trying, in vain, to return to L'Enfant Plaza

In addition to the workers at the control center, firefighters have the ability to manually disable power to the third rail by pressing a button on the blue light emergency trip stations, which are located every 800 feet along the tracks. But before firefighters can actually enter the trackbed, DCFEMS requires firefighters to get confirmation from the ROCC that the power actually has gone off.

Firefighters arrived at L'Enfant Plaza at 3:31 pm, nine minutes after Metro called to report heavy smoke in the station. By that time, the train had already been stuck in the tunnel for approximately 16 minutes. Another 13 minutes elapsed before ROCC confirmed that third rail power was off, though it appears rescue personnel entered the tunnel before that happened.

Communication was ineffective

Metro's emergency response procedures require ROCC to coordinate all activities with a designated commander (usually Metro Transit Police) at the station. This designated commander must then coordinate with the fire department on the scene.

DCFEMS reports that their traditional radios were not working inside the station or tunnel, which made it difficult to communicate information about the location of the disabled train, the need for more help, and the status of third rail power. And while in this clip, the train operator is clearly in communications with ROCC, it does not seem that the ROCC was able to communicate with anyone at L'Enfant Plaza. These communication failures likely slowed and limited the effectiveness of the emergency response.

The train operator didn't evacuate the train immediately

Because the train operator was able to stop the train short of the smoke, Metro's procedures called for him to retreat back to L'Enfant.

Since the tunnels can be dangerous places, it's obvious why Metro wants evacuation, especially without rescuers on scene, to be a last resort. But if retreating is not an option, train operators can evacuate passengers into the tunnel after receiving authorization from the ROCC; they don't have to wait on firefighters to arrive.

Several videos have captured audio of the train operator assuring passengers that he would return the train to the L'Enfant Plaza platform, where they could alight. But that wasn't an option because another train that couldn't move (possibly because the train operator had evacuated the station) was already on the platform. And even if the other train hadn't been there, it's possible that a lack of third rail power or passengers leaving the train on their own would have prevented an attempt to return to the station.

Firefighters eventually evacuated those who didn't self-evacuate though the tunnel. Metro Transit Police reported via Twitter that evacuations were complete an hour and 30 minutes after the first reports of smoke.

One firefighter has speculated that more people didn't leave the train cars on their own because the emergency door releases on the 3000-series cars are hidden.

Measures to clear the tunnel of smoke either didn't follow protocol or didn't work

ROCC didn't cut power to the part of the third rail where the arcing event occurred until 35 minutes after the train was stranded in the tunnel. During this time, the arcing continued, and continued to generate smoke. If ROCC had cut third rail power shortly after the train became stuck, it's possible that there would have been much less smoke since the arcing would have stopped.

Only a minute after the train operator stopped the train in the tunnel, ROCC did activate Metro's exhaust fans, which can clear smoke inside of a station or tunnels. But these fans may not have been functioning properly when responders first arrived at the scene.

Nobody could have prevented harm altogether, but Metro has a lot of room for improvement

It's unlikely that any response would have gotten riders out unscathed. Even passengers who quickly evacuated from the platform at L'Enfant Plaza had to be treated for smoke inhalation. But Metro's response likely depended too much on getting the train back to L'Enfant Plaza even when it became obvious that that strategy was becoming futile.

It will likely be six months to a year before NTSB officials release their findings on last Monday's incident (though they did release a preliminary report). On Saturday, Mayor Muriel Bowser released an initial report on DCFEMS's response.

It's already clear that Metro could have done better. Hopefully, new procedures and better safety training will come out of this tragedy. But it's a shame that this wasn't prevented in the first place.


Mayor Gray must refute mediocrity, or fall victim to it

Members of Vincent Gray's administration have been both quoted and sourced on background as being unhappy with a city employee going above and beyond the call of duty on the job. The mayor must explicitly quash such thinking if he doesn't want to send a signal to all other city employees not to work very hard.

Lon Walls. Image from Twitter.

Lon Walls, the communications director for DC's the Fire & Emergency Medical Services (FEMS), gave Mark Segraves some revealing statements regarding the ongoing saga of Pete Piringer, who ran the DC Fire & EMS twitter feed (@dcfireems).

Walls told WTOP, "We had a discussion, I told Pete he was going out of his lanes in terms of other agencies." One of those "lanes" apparently included tweeting about fallen trees and crime scenes. It seems other agencies were miffed that @dcfireems was tweeting about things slightly outside their core competency, and that was "making [other agencies] look slow and unresponsive."

Washington Life Magazine listed Walls as one of the "Titans of PR" last year. He ran Walls Communications prior to becoming the head of communications at FEMS. (It appears that the regular website of his firm has been scaled back, with a more detailed site residing here.)

The site boasts of "transforming [communications] challenges into successful and measurable results." Is less communication with residents the kind of results the city is looking for? (Incidentally, Walls is on Twitter, but he doesn't appear to have mastered use of it as a communication forum.)

Put simply, Pete Piringer ran a fantastic service while working at FEMS. I'm one of the three people who worked on compiling the Struck in DC (@struckdc) twitter feed, and we relied on timely information from @dcfireems to keep people aware of how many pedestrians and cyclists had been victims of incidents involving vehicles in the city for over a year. Without the information that Piringer supplied, our service has withered on the vine.

In September, the feed went silent. Concerned reporters and blogs initially thought Piringer had just gone on vacation, but officials later revealed that they'd stopped the feed.

Walls told DCist, "I'd rather be slow and right than fast and wrong," and, "Social media is for parties. We ain't givin' parties." Instead of a sneering, derisive taunt, Walls should be able to see, as a communications professional, the value of actually "communicating" with citizens.

In response to objections, the Mayor promised on September 22 that @dcfireems would not be "filtered" or "silenced." This temporarily assuaged frazzled nerves, but the goodwill was short-lived. The @dcfireems feed has not mentioned a single struck pedestrian or cyclist since August 29. While it would be wonderful if no such crashes have occurred since then, we already know that's sadly not the case.

Since September 22, @dcfireems has tweeted more about the fire chief's weight and pictures of the mayor with McGruff the Crime Dog than the information it was known for prior to September 1. That's a shame. A valuable service is gone.

Meanwhile, Piringer has been moved to work for the Office of the Secretary of the District of Columbia, where he will work on publicizing things like ceremonial documents.

Because Pete Piringer was busting his butt, he got busted down a notch (contrary to what Lon Walls would like to have us believe). Instead of other agencies stepping up their game to try to match his, we instead get the lowest common denominator. It's depressing to think that might be official policy from the executive branch.

Members of the Gray administration have essentially declared that those who perform above and beyond the call of duty will be punished for their hard work. If Mayor Gray himself does not see this for the "buck stops here" situation that this is, we can only assume he condones such thinking. If I were an ambitious employee looking to make my name as a civil servant, I certainly would look somewhere besides the District of Columbia to ply my trade.

Cross-posted at The District Curmudgeon.

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