Metro: DC Fire and EMS radio encryption blamed for failure in deadly L'Enfant incident

The National Transportation Safety Board and Metro revealed new details on Thursday about what may have gone wrong in last week's deadly smoke incident at L'Enfant Plaza. One person died and more than 80 others were injured after being trapped on a train in a smoke-filled tunnel.

On Thursday, the transit agency offered its first detailed account of some of the problems and what is being done to fix it.

The failure of D.C.'s Fire and EMS radios inside the tunnels appeared to be a major flaw, but Metro now says there was nothing wrong with its radio antennas or repeaters in the underground station and tunnels.

An initial report from D.C. Fire and EMS said Metro was notified about problems with the radios four days earlier. Metro spent several days trying to locate the problem but found none. The problem, Metro now says, was D.C. Fire and EMS.

"We found out they had made some adjustments to their radio system primarily through encryption of the system which impacted our ability to have their radio system work in our system," said Metro's interim General Manager and CEO Jack Requa.

Metro claims it notified D.C.'s Office of Unified Communications the morning of the L'Enfant malfunction that its radio network appeared to be working, but it wanted to check what is known as a "donor site" linking Metro's radio network with first responders.

The OUC agreed to provide access two days later on January 14. That is when Metro discovered there were settings that needed to be changed because of the encryption.

"We went back, made the modifications that we needed to make, to allow that system to work," Requa said.

FOX 5 contacted OUC regarding the radio communication issues, but was referred to the mayor's office. An administration official responded to FOX 5 in an email saying, "The Administration is still reviewing response to the incident and will share additional information with the public in the coming days."

The communication issue wasn't the only problem. The ventilation system designed to pull smoke from the system did not appear to function properly. In a briefing to Metro's board, Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the NTSB, said investigators found "discrepancies" with the ventilation system. Tests conducted after the incident found the fans did not vent the air in the right direction.

"They weren't functioning as intended and that's what we're trying to find out," said Hart. "What was the difference between what they were supposed to do and why they did do and why?"

Metro is now inspecting all of its ventilation shafts and fans. It is one of ten changes it announced in response to the L'Enfant incident.

Passengers also complained the train's ventilation system appeared to suck smoke into the rail cars and may not have been turned off. The NTSB has not determined if that was the case, but Metro has now ordered train operators to cut off the ventilation system when they encounter smoke rather than waiting for instructions from the rail control center.

"It would make more sense for the operator, once he encounters smoke, to be able to do that," said Rob Troup, Metro's Deputy General Manager for Operations.

The NTSB did not order Metro to make any of the changes, but the transit agency said it is working in conjunction with federal investigators.

When first responders did arrive at the train stuck inside the tunnel, an initial report from D.C. Fire and EMS said rescuers went to the first door, but that passengers were unable to open it. The report contained an email from one of the firefighters claiming the latch to open the emergency door was behind a valence which had to be unscrewed. However, Metro tells FOX 5, only the center doors are designated as emergency exits. The latch to open it is visibly accessible next to the center door along with emergency instructions.

Firefighters first approached one of the doors located toward the ends of the rail car, which are not intended to open from the inside. Those doors can be opened by firefighters from the outside with a key that every unit carries in a Metro bag for incidents like this.

As passengers were stuck inside the train, the operator can be heard on video obtained by FOX 5 saying he is trying to back up to the platform, but there is a train that must be moved. Sources told FOX 5 the operator of that train had left.

FOX 5 has now learned from a source with knowledge of the incident that the train at the platform had stopped short, leaving room for two rail cars should the train back up to evacuate if necessary. It is unclear whether that information was relayed to the train operator inside the tunnel.

The investigation is looking into why the train was unable to back up to the station and if the train at the platform was an issue. Some other possibilities are that if a train door was open, it would not be able to move. The train also may not have had power -- either because the power to the third rail was cut off or there wasn't enough power to the third rail because of the electrical arcing.

In response to the incident, Metro began conducting inspections of the jumper cables on the third rail looking for wear and tear.

The transit agency is also evaluating whether it is feasible to install smoke detectors in tunnels and stations.

Emergency quarterly drills, likely to begin this spring, will be conducted over the next three years in conduction with local emergency responders at stations, in tunnels and elevated sections of track between stations. Metro currently conducts annual training.

According to numbers provided by Metro, only 600 of D.C. Fire and EMS personnel have undergone training in the past five years -- 100 of those were last year. That is out of about 2,000 Fire and EMS personnel in the department.

By comparison during the same five-year period, Arlington, Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince George's counties all had more personnel undergo training.

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