Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Where There's Smoke, There's Not Always Fire

The initial cause of the Green Line meltdown was something called an arcing insulator. Insulators are part of the support structure for the third rail and they are spread about every 10 feet along it. For them to smoke is not uncommon at Metro. To the untrained eye, the smoke can look like a major problem, but it's relatively routine and doesn't pose much of a threat, several Metro sources confirm.

But at Metro, even small, relatively insignificant problems like an arching insulator seem to regularly cascade into full-blown crises. I wanted to find out why.

Here's how a small incident gets escalated into a major even like last Wednesday. It's based on conversations with sources knowledgeable about how Metro reacts to this kind of event.

First, someone, probably an operator, saw the smoking (arcing) insulator. The operator called Operations Control Center (OCC/Central) to report the smoke.

Then, because  "[OCC has] no idea that an arcing insulator is not a big deal," OCC called the fire department, according to a source.

"These people at OCC overreact to everything and don't listen when you say it's just an arcing insulator," said the source. "They don't have a clue, and when they hear 'smoke,' their first reaction is to call the fire department. When someone who knows what's going on offers to help, it sounds all foreign to them. They have no knowledge of electricity."

A second source agreed that Metro relies too much on the fire department in these kind of situations and that it complicates everything.

"Now we've got to have a show," they said. "I'm all for safety, but you can't get sent to the ICU  every time you get a headache. Central took away any decision making from the field. They can't see, don't know what's going on and can't communicate. They default to EMT. Nobody wants to take charge, so they pass the buck to the firefighters."

A third source said "there's very little knowledge of how Metro really works at OCC. They've worked at OCC, and that's it, yet our lives and yours are in their hands, and the way Metro is set up, they make all the decisions. They'll do anything to avoid making any kind of decision, so they call the fire department and wash their hands of it all."

One source, who has been at Metro a long time, says over their career, there have been two occasions when the fire department was really needed.

The source claimed that in the not-so-distant past, arcing insulators were dealt with by sending someone into the tunnel with a sledgehammer to literally smash the insulator, ending the problem immediately. With one insulator gone, trains can still pass safely through the area, and the insulator can be replaced later, at a more convenient time, they said.

"I've seen two track guys with a sledgehammer correct [arcing insulators] in a minute or two, and it takes the fire department 30 to 40 minutes," the source said. "Now, [OCC will] call the fire department 70 percent of time time, it was the opposite 10 or 15 years ago."

Another source called sledgehammer practice "old school," saying it's probably better just to let the insulator burn out.

Both sources agreed that while area fire departments receive occasional primers from Metro on how the system works, the firefighters aren't totally comfortable in the Metro environment, adding to delays. Furthermore, fire departments usually operate methodically, which again adds to the delays.

"Their aim is not to get the trains rolling again, it's to do things by the book," said a source.

"They are not very trusting of Metro," said another source. "You blame them?"

Calling the fire department sets the table for subsequent events, sources said. Add bad radios and incompetence into this mix, and you get the the Great Green Line Charlie Foxtrot of 2013.
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