Radio Problems after D.C. Metro Incident Detailed at NTSB Hearing

A District of Columbia fire official today detailed problems his department had communicating using their radios underground after they responded to a fatal January incident in the Washington area’s Metro rail system. Derron Hawkins, deputy chief of D.C.’s Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department, testified today on the first day of a two-day investigative hearing conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.

During the Jan. 12 incident, heavy smoke filled a tunnel outside the L’Enfant Plaza station as well as a train in the tunnel, resulting in the death of a passenger and injuries to dozens of others. Chief Hawkins testified that his responders first experienced radio problems – he said the equipment began to “honk out” – as soon as they went down the elevator shaft to the station’s platform. The also experienced problems communicating in the station and tunnel.

Mr. Hawkins said the responders followed the protocol in such instances – by turning from the city’s 800 megahertz band system to a vehicle repeater system to talk-around channels to the use of runners. By contrast, Hercules Ballard, managing director-rail transportation for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), said that Metro responders using its 490 MHz radio system reported no radio communications problems after the train incident.

“The radio worked and it worked well,” added Ronald Bodmer, director of the Office of Emergency Management within WMATA’s Metro Transit Police Department. Messrs.

Marshall Epler, deputy chief-communications and network systems for WMATA, and Teddy Kavaleri, chief IT officer for the D.C. Office of Unified Communications, described several steps that have been taken since the January incident to make sure radio problems are addressed in the subway system. Before the Jan. 12 incident, an “informal process” was in place to enable area jurisdictions to test their systems at Metro facilities. Now, a “formal test procedure” has been implemented that calls for jurisdictions to report the results of weekly or biweekly testing on a web site, with a trouble ticket being generated if necessary, Mr. Epler said.

WMATA maintains its own below-ground communications infrastructure as well as that of D.C. through a memorandum of understanding. WMATA engineers also now ride trains with test equipment to gauge where radio communications problems exist, Mr. Epler said, adding that trouble tickets are generated from those results if needed.

In response to a question later in the day from NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart about when a “new radio system” would be completed, Mr. Epler said, “We hope to put it out in the very near future.”  He added that “we are doing everything possible” to beat a 2021 deadline by working toward a completion date in “the current timeframe.”  However, he said, “I cannot tell you the exact date it will be completed.”

Asked about the city government’s need for WMATA assistance to resolve an issue with substandard radio communications near the L’Enfant Plaza station on Jan. 7, a few days prior to the fatal incident, Mr. Epler said that WMATA assistance was needed for the city’s “troubleshooting” team to gain access to the area where the problem was.  The problem was on the portion of the infrastructure for which city is responsible, but access was through a WMATA control room, he explained.

“Troubleshooting was progressing up until the day of the incident,” he added.  “After the incident, we expedited the next morning. They got an entrance to this location and …seemed to resolve the issue at that time.” In response to another question, Mr. Kavaleri said there had been no issues with the above-ground radio system for months before the fatal incident. Asked whether a recently implemented encryption system for fire department communications had played a role in the underground communications problems after the train incident, Mr. Kavaleri said that it had “no impact,” that there had been no coverage, and that the loss of communications was “complete.”- Paul Kirby,; Lynn Stanton,