Monday, May 14, 2012

Is Metro Rolling the Dice with Emergency Phone System?

A blue light indicating an ETS phone is seen at Metro Center. Courtesy: Flickr takomabibelot

Two employees report a potentially troublesome problem with a critical piece of Metro's safety infrastructure, and they worry Metro is rolling the dice by not addressing it more aggressively.

Metro has a network of telephone posted roughly ever 800 feet along the entire network. They make up the emergency telephone system (ETS).

The ETS, as one Metro worker said, is a vital last resort for Metro employees to be able to communicate with Operations Central Control in the case of emergency. Metro itself, in a 2010 broader communications request for proposals, called the ETS "mission critical."

The phones are located where you see the blue lights along the tracks. They are supposed to be sealed in a weather-proof box to protect them from the elements. For the phones in the tunnels, the box is supposed to protect the phones from brake dust.

Coming home the other day, between Ballston and East Falls Church, I noticed several of the boxes had been left wide open. It had stormed earlier in the day, and the exposed phones must have gotten a good soaking.

Since rain and electronics usually aren't a good mix, I asked some sources about the maintenance of the ETS phones.

One source said that along a relatively short stretch of track, there were several phones that had no dial tone and boxes that could not be opened.

"In all the years I have been walking around the tracks, day and night, I've never seen anyone doing any type of service on them," they said. "It is one of those things that won't get fixed until there is some scandal."

Another source said they'd also found several ETS phones that had no dial tone. The source added that they wouldn't be too concerned if the radios worked well, but that since the radios are so spotty, it's important to have the ETS phones in working order.

"It's like with the defibrillators from a while back," said the source. "No one cared enough to make sure those worked until something happened. Same with these."

In October of 2010, Metro said they were be upgrading the ETS system along the Orange and Blue lines. If they upgraded the phones between Ballston and East Falls Church, it's possible that several of them are not working now due to exposure to the elements.

In a bizarre footnote to the story, there are two different Metro departments responsible for ETS maintenance: one for the phones and another for the box.

Therefore, if the phone is broken because a broken box allowed water to get in, two departments have to coordinate the repair, leading to, as one source said, the possibility of fixing the phone while leaving the box broken, which could cause the phone to be damaged again.

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