DC says it worked with subway on radio changes for 2 years

Published January 24, 2015 7:45AM (EST)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The District of Columbia is pushing back against a claim that firefighters had difficulty using radios during a fatal accident on the Metro subway system because of changes fire officials allegedly made to the radio system without notifying transit officials.

Metro Interim General Manager Jack Requa said Thursday that fire officials had "made adjustments by encrypting their radios which made their radios less effective or almost non-working on our system." He said that after his agency got access to the site where fire officials made the changes, they determined what had been done and responded accordingly to make the radios work properly.

But District officials issued a report late Friday saying that "based on the currently available information" the "radio encryption function does not appear to have played a role" in the difficulties fire officials experienced using their radios during the Jan. 12 accident on Metro's yellow line.

One woman died and more than 80 other passengers were sickened after an electrical malfunction sent smoke billowing into a subway tunnel and the nearby L'Enfant Plaza station, one of the system's busiest. A six-car train that had just left the station stopped in the tunnel and filled with smoke.

The initial report the District's homeland security agency issued Friday said fire officials coordinated for two years with transit officials as they prepared to transition from analog to digital radios, which have encrypted channels. The District said it had coordinated with the transit agency to conduct approximately 600 tests of the digital radios and that the District switched in December to the new equipment. After the transition, "testing showed that the radios worked, but experienced some limited failures interacting with Metro's radio system," the report said.

Both Metro and the city have acknowledged they knew before the accident that there was a problem with firefighters' radios at the L'Enfant Plaza station. Firefighters found Jan. 8 that the radios were not working properly at the station and notified Metro, but the problem had not been resolved when the accident occurred.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the accident.

A spokesman for Metro, Dan Stessel, said in a statement Friday after the city's report was released that "the NTSB is the only impartial agency conducting a fact-based investigation into this matter" and that Metro is continuing to cooperate with the NTSB. Metro has so far turned over more than 370 hours of surveillance video and more than 4,000 pages of documents, Stessel said.

The District's report also noted the operator and passengers of a second train, which arrived at L'Enfant Plaza station, self-evacuated. That left the train in the station, which could explain why the train in the tunnel did not back up to the boarding platform to let its passengers off.

The District had already released a timeline and another preliminary report on the incident, as has the NTSB. The latest city document promised a more detailed report with recommendations following a "comprehensive after-action review."

By Jessica Gresko

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