Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a portion of testimony from a union leader for paramedics to a union leader for firefighters. It was Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 3721, which represents paramedics, not Ed Smith, head of the union that represents the city’s more than 1,700 firefighters, who offered one of the comments most critical of the functioning of first responders’ radios in Metro tunnels. “I’ll tell you this — you would do better using your cellphone,” Lyons said. Lyons also said: “As they tell you in the military, communication is everything and without it, your system crashes, and that’s what happened at L’Enfant Plaza.”
Unions for D.C. firefighters and paramedics broke ranks with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Thursday, blaming the District’s fire department for poor training and pervasive radio failures as probes continue into last month’s fatal smoke incident aboard Metro.
Documents released Thursday also revealed that the fire department sent just 100 of its more than 1,700 firefighters to Metro disaster training last year — a fraction of the number sent by departments in neighboring counties with Metro stations in Maryland and Virginia.
Under questioning from the D.C. Council, interim Fire Chief Eugene Jones also acknowledged that the department eliminated its top post of Metro rail-safety officer years ago. And unlike most cities with subway systems, or even nearby Montgomery County, the District does not staff on every shift officers specially trained for rail emergencies.
The revelations bring new scrutiny to city fire officials and Bowser’s administration. They come after weeks of competing explanations between the city and Metro over which is more responsible for delays in reaching passengers and for emergency radio failures during the Jan. 12 incident that killed one person and hospitalized 84.
The council’s hearing, which put Metro and D.C. fire officials under oath for the first time since the tragedy, also revealed that District firefighters and paramedics deal with radio failures routinely. Union leaders said the rank-and-file have little faith that their radios will work when needed.
Until Thursday, Bowser’s administration and the unions had been unified in their view that Metro was responsible for the radio troubles.
“I’ll tell you this — you’ll do better using your cellphone,” said Kenneth Lyons, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 3721, which represents paramedics.
Ed Smith, head of the union that represents the city’s more than 1,700 firefighters. Smith said firefighters’ radios fail to get signals in Metro stations and tunnels, and also in the District’s downtown office buildings and basement parking garages.
“Not only in the Metro system, but all buildings, we lose signals routinely,” Smith said. “We have radio problems throughout the city.”
Asked if he was confident that radios work in Metro tunnels now, Smith said, “probably,” since the system has been under intense scrutiny and testing has been stepped up. But “it’s depending on maintenance and depending on the day whether it’s going to work properly or not,” he said.
The testimony jarred D.C. Council members, who seemed exasperated at times and questioned what progress the District’s fire department had made since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine. Both tragedies triggered a wave of spending on better equipment for the city’s first responders.
“Can you think of certain incidents in which we have made improvements?” asked Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). “It just seems like this is somehow this isolating incident where all of a sudden we realize there are all kinds of issues.”
The developments cast an additional shadow over the tenure of former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and his loyalty to embattled former fire chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe.
Lyons said countless complaints about radios had been filed by paramedics during the prior administration. The number of complaints from paramedics has slowed, Lyons added, only because rank-and-file have accepted that their radios will work only sporadically. “That’s dangerous,” he said.
Specifically on Metro, Lyons said paramedics have not been trained effectively for more than a decade on how to respond to a Metro disaster.
Kevin Donahue, Bowser’s acting deputy mayor for public safety, said he was “surprised” to have learned that only 100 D.C. firefighters had attended Metro training last year.
Statistics released Thursday by Metro showed 745 firefighters from Fairfax County, 435 from Montgomery, 250 from Arlington and 146 from Prince George’s County were among the 5,500 who visited the transit system’s training facility in Landover last year.
There, Metro has two trains in a mock-up tunnel. The facility can heat the trains, fill them with smoke and darken them to simulate emergency conditions. Firefighters from across the country and even overseas visit the facility to train. Last year, the District sent one of the smallest contingents.
“We want to step it up in a smart way,” Donahue said. “ We need to look at who’s getting trained . . . is it enough and is it the right people within the department?” Donahue said the administration is studying one proposal to train teams specifically for Metro incidents, much the way teams train for high-altitude or water rescues.
Jones, the acting chief, said that three battalions were sent Wednesday to train at the facility. Thursday’s hearing, he said, revealed that more needed to be done.
“Today I received information through testimony that we need better training, so I am going to go back and look at that,” Jones said.
The District’s fire department wasn’t the only agency to face tough questions.
Public Safety Committee Chairman Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) peppered Metro’s interim general manager, Jack Requa, with questions about protocols for fixing radio problems.
Requa acknowledged that while the transit agency strives constantly to keep its more than 5,000 radios working in stations and tunnels, there was no formal process before last month’s deadly incident for outside fire departments or paramedics to communicate problems — or for Metro officials to fix them.
Metro officials have said that changes D.C. firefighters made to their radio encryption and channels contributed to the failure Jan. 12. Fire officials and the District’s homeland security agency have disputed that.
Lyons said that days before a Yellow Line train filled with smoke just south of the L’Enfant Plaza station, paramedics had been in the station looking for a diabetes patient and their radios did not work.
Requa said he is looking to establish a more formalized system to coordinate communications issues among Metro jurisdictions.
“If the fire departments make any adjustments to their radio systems that might have some impact on us, we hope to get that kind of information in the future.”
The National Transportation Safety Board declined an invitation to testify. McDuffie read a portion of a letter aloud in which the NTSB warned parties to the investigation to not disclose information that could color it.
In its statement to the council, the NTSB said it would hold hearings June 23 and 24. At that hearing, the board said it will take testimony and the public will be able to view the progress on the investigation.
Lyons, the head of the paramedics union, said there was no coloring one fact: “As they tell you in the military, communication is everything,” he said. “Without it everything crashes, and that’s what happened at L’Enfant Plaza.”