DC: Metro Radio System Plagued with Problems

Metros radio system is plagued with dead spots throughout its network, making it difficult for transit agency officials to communicate in emergencies when the radios fade in and out.

It particularly is a problem for the agencys police force as officers patrol the underground network. The failures jeopardize the safety of officers and riders, according to the Metro Transit Police Labor Committee.

Most recently, the radios failed on Halloween night as dozens of teens fought in the Foggy Bottom Metro station, leading to confusion as pepper spray was released. The failures also created concern that night when a teen shot in the head sought help in the New York Avenue Metro station. Some police couldnt understand a Metro Transit Police officer calling for backup while investigating reports that the shooter had run into the station, the union said.

Whats the point of police radios if you cant call for backup? Labor Committee attorney Justin Keating asked. These are not isolated incidents. Its all over the system.

No one was hurt because of the Halloween problems, but they serve as yet another warning.

Last month, Metro officials blamed poor radio reception in the Clarendon station as a challenge during an Orange Line meltdown following a suicide that delayed thousands of commuters.

Similar dead zones also caused problems in July 2010 when a fire on a Dupont Circle station escalator caused confusion for a crowd of riders trying to evacuate from a partially barricaded exit.

Maryland Occupational Safety and Health cited Metro in 2010 for the death of two track workers hit by track equipment, recommending the transit agency improve its communications system and eliminate dead zones in the radio system.

Using cell phones is an imperfect fallback, as more than half of the underground stations dont have cell phone service except for Verizon, and even that carrier has been spotty in places. The agency is supposed to have full cell phone service throughout its underground system by October 2012.

Furthermore, Keating said, dialing a cell phone takes time and concentration that officers may not have in an emergency, unlike a radio, in which they can finger a call button without having to take their eyes off what they are doing.

Metro acknowledges the radio system has problems, calling it a top safety priority.

There are places where the radio coverage is not as good as it should be, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. Were working toward resolution of that as quickly as possible.

The agency will have to replace its radio system to comply with Federal Communications Commission requirements, which should help, he added. The agency hopes to seek contracts in December but it will take years to upgrade all the radio equipment on buses, trains and in stations.

Metro recently debuted a remote monitoring system to help spot where the radios are faltering. The system pinpointed a bad amplifier at Metro Center that was causing the Halloween problems, Stessel said.

Officials are going down the list of problem areas, and last week tested new antennas at the LEnfant Plaza station.

The agency also pairs up police officers during known outages, Stessel said.

But Keating called that an insufficient Band-Aid. Youd have to pair them up all the time, Keating said. Its a pervasive problem.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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