The Metro Crash Shows Progress on Preparedness

A rescue worker tends to a passenger hurt in last week's Metro train crash north of Fort Totten. Nine people died and 80 were injured.
A rescue worker tends to a passenger hurt in last week's Metro train crash north of Fort Totten. Nine people died and 80 were injured. (By James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Daniel J. Kaniewski
Sunday, June 28, 2009

There was one good piece of news to emerge from Monday's horrific Metro crash on the Red Line: The response to the tragedy demonstrated that an increased focus on local and regional readiness since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has better prepared the Washington area not only for acts of terrorism but also for the full range of emergencies that can strike a region.

Within minutes of the accident, which killed at least nine people and injured 80, scores of emergency vehicles from the District and surrounding jurisdictions descended upon the scene. As I monitored the radio traffic of the local agencies involved, I expected to hear chaos; instead, I heard the calm and ordered dispatch of emergency units, along with informative reports from first-responders.

Thanks to extensive regional planning, the Washington area didn't seem to suffer from some of the challenges faced by other jurisdictions in similar emergencies. Public safety leaders, for example, weren't jockeying for control of the incident site; rather, police, fire, emergency medical services, transit and emergency management officials worked in a unified manner. When D.C. resources became stretched, pre-identified units from surrounding jurisdictions were alerted, smoothly joining the rescue operation. There were no apparent coordination or communications issues.

The ability of hospitals to handle a large number of injured people -- the so-called "surge capacity" -- was also critical. It appears that extensive planning by area hospitals paid off on Monday, as no single hospital was overwhelmed with casualties.

Monday's coordinated effort stands in contrast to the chaotic response to what was previously the deadliest incident in Metro history. On Jan. 13, 1982, just a half-hour after Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the icy Potomac River, a rush-hour train derailment near the Federal Triangle station killed three passengers and injured 25.

During these incidents, the emergency response system became overwhelmed and critical systems failed. Coordination between emergency workers from responding jurisdictions was unwieldy, and radio communications were difficult. Rescuers were forced to act on instinct rather than formal training.

As the investigation continues into the cause of Monday's crash, public safety agencies and health-care providers will undoubtedly pause and evaluate the effectiveness of their response. Any "lessons learned" will further improve the area's response system, thereby making the region even better prepared to respond to the next major incident, whether it be an accident or an act of terrorism.

The writer is deputy director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company