City Desk

One Emerging Angle: Was The Fire Department Properly Notified Of Metro Crash?

The Washington Times picked up what may become an emerging angle from the Metro Crash—the tensions between WMATA and the D.C. Fire Department. Fire Chief Dennis Rubin basically called out WMATA for initially downplaying the extent of the crash. The Times writes:

"Fire officials stated bluntly Monday night that Metro's original description of the accident understated its magnitude, and it was only when the first rescuers arrived at the scene that the sort of help needed was finally summoned.

'A little after five o'clock we responded to what was believed to be a small incident,' D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin said. 'The first arriving company recognized the fact that apparently two trains had collided.' Fire officials eventually sounded three alarms, summoning hundreds of rescuers and implementing their mass- casualty operations."

It's unclear whether rescue work was delayed as a result or whether WMATA or 911 dispatchers made errors in communicating the severity of the crash. "[The Office of Unified Communications] is not under our purview," explains Deputy Fire Chief Kenneth Crosswhite. "We're not responsible for OUC....I would be curious to hear what the first 911 call was reporting."

Fire Department Spokesperson Alan Etter refused to say when the department sounded three alarms and summoned all those rescue workers. "It was an evolving event—resources were called as they were needed," he stated in an e-mail to City Desk. "In other words, nobody jumped up and said—this is a third alarm incident—at the height of involvement we had an equivalent of three alarms on scene—more than 200 personnel–with mutual aid, etc."

The department's own notification records point to such a response. It's unclear whether or not that response was timely.

At 5:23 p.m., the Fire Department issued what may have been its first notification noting the Metro train derailment and that it was "above ground, train involved."

At 5:40 p.m., a second notification came out describing that one train was on top of another. It listed the staging area for emergency personnel at 2nd and Nicholson.

At 5:41 p.m., a third notification was sent out noting that the command center had been established to support the emergency efforts. All off-duty battalion chiefs were to call in placed on standby.

At 5:54 p.m., a fourth notification was sent out announcing that different radio channels had been established for the rescue.

Crosswhite says the scene was not chaotic, adding that the department has two mass casualty units that responded. He is not sure if they were on the scene when he arrived at 5:30 p.m. "I really don't know," he explains. "I seem to think they were already there—I want to say in the staging area."

Crosswhite ended up driving an ambulance.

Rubin responded to the Washington Post's questions on the WMATA issue this afternoon:

"Firefighters on their way to the Metro crash site yesterday they were unaware that there was a horrific fatal collision and thought they were responding to a 'small incident,' D.C. Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin told The Post's Allison Klein.

They initially were dispatched to the two Metro stations — Takoma Park and Ft. Totten — before they located the mile marker of the crash. But responders got to the scene within six minutes, Rubin said, and 'performed in an exceptional way.'

'The instant we laid eyes on it, this was declared a major operation,' Rubin said.

At Fenty's press conference just after 5 p.m. today, Rubin says Fire Department responded quickly to disaster.

*photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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