LANDOVER – In a move to further ensure the safety of its customers, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has agreed to establish a new full-time fire liaison position with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government Fire Chief’s Committee. The creation of the position comes after an incident at L’Enfant Plaza in January when […]
LANDOVER – In a move to further ensure the safety of its customers, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) has agreed to establish a new full-time fire liaison position with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government Fire Chief’s Committee.
The creation of the position comes after an incident at L’Enfant Plaza in January when a train filled with smoke, killing one passenger and injuring more than 80 people. The National Transportation Safety Board plans to release its final report next year and has already released urgent recommendations for Metro to address poor smoke ventilation in its tunnels as well as improperly installed insulation for electrical pieces on the tracks.
The additional position is being funded by a $250,000 down payment from WMATA, according to Prince George’s County Fire Chief and MWCOG Chairman Marc Bashoor, and will be a 40-hour per week position. The position will serve as a communicator between WMATA rail operations control center employees and each jurisdictions respective fire department.
“The fire and rescue liaison position in the (Rail Operations Control Center) has already provided crucial support to WMATA and the Fire Department incident commanders,” Bashoor said. “In the first couple of days, the liaison provided support for more than two dozen fire and EMS incidents affecting multiple jurisdiction centers.”
Currently, Bashoor said, a Fairfax County fire official is servicing the position. MWCOG would like to expand the position to a 24-hour, seven-day operation, he said, but the funding is not available in each department.
WMATA Interim General Manager and CEO Jack Requa said the position will coordinate emergency communication between Metro and first responders in each jurisdiction. The official in the position will be in full uniform, he said, and will operate in the “nerve center” of the rail system.
“The fire and rescue liaison will also develop policy recommendations and provide supplemental emergency training for our rail operations controllers,” Requa said. “We remain dedicated to working with our jurisdictional partners to make our rail system safe for our riders.”
Bashoor said that he is not surprised that it took “so long” to establish this new position. WMATA’s safety measures and protocol are strong, he said, and have provided a link to jurisdictional safety offices for years.
However, Bashoor said, the department thought there could be more information provided, and the jurisdictional fire departments could help provide that information for a safer ride. MWCOG’s fire chiefs have been discussing this position for around 10 years, he said, and certain incidents drove change.
“We had infrastructure in place as far as COG and committees and passenger rail safety. That framework has been in place since COG has been a partner in this,” Bashoor said. “We’re just expanding on that.”
Bashoor said he could not speak directly to the L’Enfant Plaza incident because of an ongoing federal investigation, but should an incident like that happen again, he said, the liaison would be able to provide information to first responders faster for an improved response.
“A lot of times, locations are given by workers on the rail or someone on a 911 call that comes in, and it may or may not get translated properly to the 911 center. And that is where we believe the liaison would help,” Bashoor said. “They would understand all those landmarks and all those pieces. That is the difference.”
The new liaison position at the Rail Operations Control Center gives first responders “eyes and ears” on Metrorail operations, Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik said.
“We have a fire representative on the inside, so to speak, so that person will be able to tell you, from a rail perspective, what is going on with a rail,” Pavlik said. “There will be direct resources there, and we’ll be able to get to the scene quicker.”
The position is currently slotted at 40 hours, Bashoor said, and manned by a Fairfax County fire official. However, he said, if he is off, Prince George’s County will provide an official to take his place. If the Prince George’s County official cannot man the position, a fire official from Washington, D.C., will man it.
“We have three layers of liaisons that are selected. All three are part of the COG passenger rail safety committee, so they are very aware and very involved,” Bashoor said.
Before the position can become a 24-hour, seven-day position, Bashoor said, fire officials from each jurisdiction must be trained and prepared to be liaisons. They must have knowledge of the rail systems, he said, and be familiar with how the Rail Operations Control Center works.
“The fire departments have a fixed budget. We’re not just going to take any firefighter and put them in that position. It needs to be someone who is familiar with the WMATA system,” Bashoor said. “That is a relatively finite group of people. The ones that are truly invested are the ones in the passenger rail safety subcommittee.”
The current liaison will set performance goals for future positions WMATA will consider adding for more coverage, Bashoor said. They are currently on a 90-day trial period, he said, and the exact job requirements and applications are currently being constructed. After the 90-day period, he said, the department will evaluate the position’s performance and determine what to do next.
The fire department will consider adding additional funding for training and additional positions to create a 24-hour, seven-day post, Bashoor said, but it depends heavily on what the county’s budget situation looks like in the next fiscal year.
“We would love to be able to do that, but even this year the county had some constraints budget-wise, Bashoor said. “We want to make this into a 24-hour position, but we have to see what happens.”