Debbie Leitner finished up a day of work at her M Street office and skipped happy hour one night this week. Instead, the Red Line rider from Cleveland Park learned how to flip open a seat in a Metrorail car to retrieve a concealed emergency ladder that she can use to get off a subway train if it gets stranded in a tunnel.
Leitner, 26, is among a select group of commuters being trained by Metro in ways to evacuate trains and tunnels and help passengers during a terrorist attack or rail disaster.
In a nine-hour course spread over three sessions, Metro officials are walking commuters through dark subway tunnels, teaching them to navigate live tracks and avoid passing trains as well as the 750-volt third rail. They are coaching them on how to use the emergency systems onboard trains, how to call for help inside the tunnels and how to communicate with the train operators, central controllers and rescue workers. They also are giving them tips on recognizing suspicious characters and packages on the trains and buses.
Other transit systems have provided similar training to transit workers, but Metro's program is the first in the country to train passengers, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
The Metro system is considered by federal law enforcement to be a prime Washington target for terrorists. Metro officials said the effort was another step in a campaign to prepare Metro's 1.1 million daily rail and bus riders for catastrophe.
Initially, the training is being limited to Metro riders who are members of community emergency response teams, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The teams, which exist in Alexandria and the District and in Arlington, Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince William counties, consist of hundreds of community volunteers who have received 20 hours of emergency training so they can help fire and rescue workers in a disaster, Transit Police Capt. Jeff Delinski said.
The first training group of 15 commuters included five District government employees who work in emergency preparedness, a National Guard member from the District, a Metro worker, a security guard and a Capitol Hill staffer. Some of the participants said they drive to work and rarely take Metro; others were daily riders.
"I just feel like these are good skills to have -- to know how to help other people," said Sarah Potts, 31, who helps administer Fulbright scholarships for teachers. "The more you know, the less afraid you are." Potts, a Capitol Hill resident, does not own a car.
Potts and the others spent this week's training session inside Metro's Brentwood rail maintenance facility, where they climbed aboard a train and learned how to open the center doors of a rail car in an emergency, how to retrieve the escape ladder on every rail car and how to evacuate a train from the front car.
Victor Size of Metro's safety department ran down the list of hazards that loom in a transit system, starting with the third rail on the track, which carries 750 volts of electricity to power the trains, and the collector shoes underneath the rail cars, which make contact with the third rail and carry the same current. "If you put your foot down on a collector shoe [while evacuating], it's your last step," Size told the group. "Remember: Touch me and die."
Size would repeat that slogan like a mantra throughout the night, stressing that when evacuating a train in a rail tunnel, passengers should exit the train on the side away from the third rail. "One side of the tunnel has lights and a catwalk," he said. "The other side has no lights, no clearance, no catwalk and the third rail."
Leitner, who rides Metro every day to her job at the National Association of Homebuilders, said she thinks the training has given her the confidence to take care of herself during an emergency and help keep others around her safe.
"Having citizens who've gone through this program on the trains is a good thing," she said. "Before I took it, I didn't know what side of the train I should get off if I had to evacuate, or how to get in touch with the operator, or how to even tell first responders my location [on the train]. Now at least I can say to other people, 'It's okay, I'll help get us out of here.' "
After Metro finishes training the community emergency response teams, it plans to expand the training to regular riders, Delinski said.
"Any person who rides Metro three to four times a week should go through this training," said Jerome DuVal, 35, a District resident who works as the director of the D.C. Citizen Corps.
In the meantime, Metro has posted on its Web site, at www.wmata.com/riding/safety/evac.cfm, an animated guide to evacuating trains, subway tunnels, stations and buses. The agency also has produced a CD-ROM with the animated guide.
This week, Metro launched an interactive program on its Web site designed to help passengers figure out how to prepare for emergencies that affect subway service.
The Metrorail Alternate Route Planning Guide, found at www.metroopensdoors.com, offers step-by-step instructions to plan alternative ways to get around the region if subway service were disrupted. The guide includes three basic scenarios for passengers: their regular home station is closed; several stations or all above-ground stations are closed; all stations are closed or rail service is not practical.