Metro sent out a bulletin last month, asking workers to cease using the emergency alarm button on their two-way radios — an alarm that went off more than 6,000 times in a 20-month period. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Metro workers activated an emergency alarm more than 6,000 times in error since January 2016 — a widespread misuse of the emergency alarm feature on two-way radios that the agency’s Office of Inspector General called a “serious safety issue.”

Metro workers carry two-way radios that feature a bright orange button designated as an emergency alarm. The button is intended to be used by law enforcement officers as a means of notifying other officers of an emergency in situations where audible alerts might be dangerous.

But the button has also been regularly used by Metro operators and track maintenance staff, sending alarm signals to the system’s Operations Control Center — where they are consistently ignored, according to an audit conducted by the inspector general’s office.

“Rail Operations Control Center employees did not respond to any of these alarms generated by these radios,” the report said. “This could result in non-response to real emergencies, thereby adversely impacting the safety of employees, contractors, and rail passengers.”

The emergency buttons on the radios are not part of Metro’s official emergency protocol. Workers experiencing an actual emergency are taught to radio in to the control center with information about the nature and location of the incident with which they need assistance.

But the inspector general’s report concludes that workers were misusing the emergency button — sometimes out of frustration — when the control center was too busy with other calls to respond to workers’ queries or requests for access to the tracks.

The widespread use of the alarm system demonstrated a lack of clarity among Metro’s workers about proper communications protocol, the inspector general’s office said.

Metro “officials indicated users are often frustrated when they cannot contact the ROCC on the radio, so they press the emergency button to connect to the ROCC quicker,” the inspector general’s report said. “Calls are sometimes not answered immediately because ROCC employees are often on other calls.”

Metro “Operations Radio Communication training does not sufficiently stress emergency protocols regarding radios,” the audit said, “and employees are not aware of the significant impact of pressing the emergency alarm button.”

The alarms increase the din in Metro’s Operations Control Center, an ongoing problem that federal investigators have said puts workers and riders at risk. There are so many alarms and noises going off in the ROCC, the Federal Transit Administration concluded in one 2015 report, that it’s difficult for dispatchers and controllers to pay attention to what is important.

In the case of the alarms activated by the orange button on the two-way radios, the audit said, “a loud alarm rings at all 12 desks in [the Radio Operations Control Center], disrupting communications on the floor until the alarms are acknowledged and purged in the system.” In addition, when workers pressed the alarm button, “the communication channel is blocked and no other communications can take place until the alarms are shut off.”

But even when alarms went off in the control center, staffers there did not treat them as emergencies — they simply purged them from the system.

In response to the inspector general’s report, Metro officials decided to disable the alarm system. The button will no longer prompt audio alarms in the control center, and Metro’s chief operations officer sent a memo to workers last month telling them to quit using the orange button.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said Thursday he did not believe the problem is a serious safety issue, reiterating that Metro workers are trained to directly communicate with the control center in the event of an emergency. 

“It’s not the process we follow,” he said.

Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said that disabling the emergency alarms will have no impact on emergency procedures.

“That feature being deactivated takes nothing away from how emergencies get declared or a worker’s ability to report an emergency on the operations side,” Stessel said.

The benefits of disabling the system will be noticeable inside the control center, where management continues to try to tamp down the number of alarms that can distract dispatchers.

“It gets into the clutter. It’s good to weed that stuff out,” Stessel said. “The management action is meant to take that nuisance alarm issue out of the Rail Operations Control Center.”