Passengers react as smoke filled a Metro train in January in a tunnel outside the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. (Photo by Saleh Damiger)

A Fairfax County fire captain has been assigned to work 40 hours a week in Metro’s central train-control facility to help the transit agency and firefighters avoid communications confusion during emergencies, a problem that hampered the response to the Jan. 12 fatal smoke incident in a subway tunnel.

Officials said Monday that Capt. Robert Konczal, who is a specialist in passenger-rail safety, began working June 29 as a liaison in Metro’s Rail Operations Control Center, known as the ROCC, where train controllers monitor the subway in real time.

Konczal is not at the ROCC, which is in Landover, during all hours of operation.

“We would like to see a 24/7 posture,” Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said at a Monday news conference. But until more money and trained fire personnel become available, the liaison job will not be an around-the-clock position, said Bashoor, who is chairman of the fire chiefs committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Until “either the funding is provided, or we’ve found some mechanism to fund that 24/7 position,” he said, “I’ll take the 40 hours a week, and we’ll begin with that.”

Officials said Metro provided $250,000 to create the position and pay for a firefighter who is familiar with rail operations to fill the job 40 hours a week. They said it will be up to Washington-area fire departments or Metro, or both, to budget money for other firefighters to supplement Konczal.

“Every one of us has a fixed budget,” Bashoor said.

He added: “We’re not just going to take any firefighter and put him in this position. It needs to be someone who is familiar with the [Metro] system. And that’s a relatively finite group of people.”

The ROCC’s operations were a focus of a highly critical report last month by the Federal Transit Administration, which cited under­staffing, inadequate training, outdated computer software and other problems at the facility.

The train control center also has been implicated in the Jan. 12 smoke incident, in which scores of riders were trapped on a Yellow Line train in a tunnel filled with noxious fumes just south of L’Enfant Plaza. One passenger died, and more than 80 were sickened.

Among numerous aspects of the calamity that are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board are the confusion and breakdowns in communications that day involving firefighters and train controllers.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Bashoor said the liaison will function essentially as a translator. At the outset of an emergency, as Metro workers report the situation to the ROCC, the liaison will know better than train controllers what questions to ask the workers and how best to interpret the information for 911 operators, Bashoor said.

“I believe that the liaison will be able to provide that critical information in the first couple of minutes of an incident that would improve our response,” he said. “The liaison is able to analyze that information immediately.”

As for why the position is only now being created in a subway system that opened nearly 40 years ago, Bashoor said the region’s fire chiefs “for probably 10 years have been talking to [Metro] about what it would take to get this in place.”

Referring to Jan. 12, he said, “So we’ve been able to convince [Metro] that that’s indeed what we need to do. . . . Sometimes, incidents drive decisions.”

Konczal, who is very familiar with Metro operations, is a member of the passenger-rail safety subcommittee of the COG fire chiefs, Bashoor said.

Two other members of the subcommittee — both firefighters, one in Prince George’s and one in the District — have been assigned as backups. When Konc­zal is unable to work in the ROCC during a designated shift, one of the others will take his place.

Bashoor said the 40 hours a week will not be a set schedule. The times of day or night when the liaison will be on duty will vary depending on Metro ridership patterns and special events that are expected to drive up the number of passengers. Three weeks after Konczal’s first shift, his schedule is still being tinkered with, Bashoor said.

“I can tell you, the liaison from Fairfax County, he’s very invested in making this a success, and he’s actually been working 10 or 12 hours a day,” Bashoor said.