Washington area fire officials are concerned that the Metro subway system poses many of the same hazards to riders and firefighters that were revealed during the investigation of the San Francisco Bay subway fire last January.
The officials, part of a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments committee, are pressing Metro to make changes in communications and procedures that would assist firemen if they had to fight a blaze in the tunnels between stations.
In all of the 23 fires that have broken out underneath Metro's subway cars since the system opened in March 1976, operators have been able to get the train to a station, unload the passengers, and evacuate the station. In such circumstances the fires have been relatively easy to extinguish and no major damage has been done.
"It's regrettable, but we have a similar situation here to the one they had" during the fire in the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) fire in January, said Hughes Clarke, who is the assistant D.C. fire chief in charge of liaison with Metro.
Clarke and R. S. Carpenter, assistant Arlington County chief who is chairman of the chief's Metro liaison subcommittee, said that the biggest single problem is a lack of communications available to fire units in the tunnels. Radios, which work fine along outdoor sections of track or at above ground stations, do not function well underground without extensive additional equipment.
Furthermore, the chiefs say in a draft memorandum being prepared for Metro, that fire protection equipment in the tunnels is not properly maintained or adequately inspected.
"Several emergency incidents have been hampered by exhaust fans not operating, open standpipe hose valves, missing valve handles, nonfunctioning emergency exits, ect.," the memorandum says.
Another major annoyance, the chief say, is that Metro has declined to provide the fire departments with a master key that opens the service rooms near Metro stations and the vent shafts located in the Metro tunnels.
"Look at that," said chief Clark as he held up a ring carrying 27 keys. "Can't you just see a fireman trying every one of these keys to get into a room?"
There is almost no information in the Metro cars suggesting to the rider that there every could possibly be a problem or what the rider should do in case of a problem. The emergency handles that open the doors to the cars are hidden behind advertising frames and there are no instructions on how to get to the handles.
There is an intercom located by the end door of each car. The intercom, however, is hard to find. Tiny letters on it read, "For Emergency Only Push to Talk."
The chiefs are going to ask that a placard be placed in the cars giving emeergency instructions.
Metro officials, for their part, have decided that they do not want their patrons wandering around on the tracks in the event of an emergency. They would rather have them wait for rescue officials to arrive. Thus, the handles which open the side doors are concealed and the end doors of the train are locked.
"We're not weighing our ability to evacuate the car against a fire," said Metro fire protection coordinator Lawrence Engleman, "We're weighing the likelihood of a fire against the other types of incidents that are more prevlent."
The is one major difference in fire safety between Metro and BART: the Metro cars have no polyurethane, the highly flammable, highly toxic plastic that lines floors and seat cushions of the BART cars.
That material, which still exists in about 400 of Metro's AM General buses, was replaced in the subway cars with slower-burning neoprene before Metro started operations. The floor of the Metro cars is a combination of metal and plywood which, burns much more slowly and with less toxicity than polyurethane. The wallls of the Metro cars, however, are made of polyvinylchloride which, once ignited, also emits highly toxic fumes.
There also is one other major difference. The longest BART tunnel of 3.6 miles is under the San Francisco Bay. The longest Metro tunnel is between the Rosslyn and Foggy Bottom situations, and it is only 3,800 feet long (about three-fourths of a mile) from vent shaft to vent - the points on either side of the river where firemen have access to the tunnel.
Nonetheless, in a worst-case situation with a rush-hour train on fire in the middle of the tunnel under the river, it could take firemen 20 minutes to get to the train. "That assumes that we are not driven back by the smoke," Carpenter said. Rush-hour Metro trains frequently carry as many as 1,600 people.
The chief's committee wants Metro to rebuild a firewall in the passage between the two tunnels under the river. A cinderblock wall was placed there before Metro opened the Blue Line in 1977 and a fire door was mounted in the wall. However, a key Metro official said that, the wall fell down the first time Metro ran a test train through at top speed - about 65 miles per hour.
"With that wall back, we could contain smoke in one tunnel and use the other tunnel for rescue operations," Carpenter said.
But communications remain as the biggest problem. Metro has an anntenna that runs throughout its tunnel system so that train operators can communicate with Metro central control. It is possible for police and fire units to use that same antenna system for their own radios. However, special electronic equipment, estimated two years ago to cost about $1 million, must be installed before that its technically possible.
In the meantime, the fire departments can use the Metro administration phone system in the tunnels, which connects directly with central. But there might be as many as 10 phones on the same circuit along a given section of track. A priority override button on each instrument should handle emergency calls, but only if central answer the calls.
The situation is very much like this year's BART fire when radios did not work and firemen could not communicate with their own units. The administrative phone line connected with BART central, but the people in BART central were busy and could not always handle the fire calls.
Arlington County does have radio communication capability within the Potomac River tunnel, but the D.C. Fire Department does not and there are many other miles of tunnel in D.C. without radio communication. Jurisdiction in most of the under-river tunnel belongs to the District of Columbia.
Metro has signed agreements with area fire departments setting out fire responsibilities. Regular training drills were held with each area department before Metro lines opened in their jurisdictions. Metro is now studying ways of renewing that training, which is more difficult once sections of the system are in operation.
A major problem, according to the chiefs, is that Engleman's recommendations cannot get through the bureucracy. Engelman's only assistant - the person who used to check light bulbs, fans switches and the like - had his position eliminated in the most recent Metro budget.
Down in Metro Central they now joke about the two times they called the D.C. Fire Department and the equipment went to the wrong place. Once the fire was at Foggy Bottom and the fire trucks first went to Farragut West. Another time the alarm was turned in for Farragut West, and the fire turcks went to Farragut North.
All but one of the 23 Metro car fires have been in the "resistaor grids" located under the cars. The grids dissipate heat that is generated when the cars brake. All of the fires have been relatively minor and there has never been a fire penetration of the car itself.
A rely in Metro's intricate electronics is blamed for the resistor grid fires and that relay is being replaced as the cars come in for maintenance. CAPTION: Picture, Officials are looking at potential fire hazards of Washington's Metrorail system. As many as 1,600 commuters will cram aboard a single train during rush hours. By Paul Myatt