"Unbelievable" was the word most often used to describe the gruesome crash site of the Metro Rail accident in Washington, DC, on Monday, June 22, 2009. The daily commuter homebound rush was well underway when the first call for help went out at 5 P.M. The initial dispatch call for help was as...
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- The Incident Command System (ICS) worked better than advertised. This alarm required a tremendous amount of response resources, logistical support and interagency coordination. By implementing ICS from the arrival of the first company, command and control was never in question. A unified command structure was developed within the first few minutes and used throughout the event. Fire and EMS was the lead agency for the duration of the rescue and recovery operation and the formal transfer was made to the Metro Rail Police Department at 1 P.M. on Tuesday, June 23, to continue the investigation process. Metro Rail Police was the agency that terminated the event later that day. By implementing the system, many support components were exercised, such as finance/administration and Logistic Services Branch that are not often used.
The emergency medical care that was provided to scores of people was outstanding. All eyes were focused on the "golden hour" of trauma care and every red- or yellow-tagged patient was delivered to the hospital within a 60-minute window. Most Fire and EMS senior operational medical officers were in attendance to oversee the provision of evidenced-based medicine to all of those in need of care. Deputy Chief Greg Blalock was the Medical Branch director and worked closely with the Operations Section chief and the Evacuation Branch director to provide the best care as soon as a person was identified with the need and placed in as safe of a position as possible.
Given all of the factors at this event, such as the large number of patients, severity of injuries and the degree of difficulty to perform extrication, the medical care on the "Red Line" that day will be studied in detail for its effectiveness and efficiency.
- Our patient triage system was implemented upon arrival of the first unit and was continued until all of the injured were cared for and transported to definitive care facilities. Battalion Chief Henry Lyles coordinated the triage and transportation process. Coordination with our EMS Liaison Officer and the mass-casualty management hospital (Children's Hospital) was critical in determining the best and most suitable hospital to receive a specific patient. The ambulance drop times at the emergency departments would be a critical factor in providing a continuous stream of available ambulances for both this incident and citywide needs.
- It could be said that in many ways this was a "lucky" event. First, the location of the event was on grade-level track; if this had been an elevated track or tunnel, the degree of danger and difficulty would have gone up significantly. It was luck that the train was heading into the city in that the outbound trains at that hour have a capacity load of passengers. Next, the time of day was ideal to provide the maximum amount of senior and executive level of command officers to this event. The weather was mild for the time of year and it wasn't raining. All of these would be described as elements that worked in our favor that day to keep the fatalities and injuries to the lowest level possible. However, I am certain the "luck" of the day was when training, preparation, education, personal effort and professionalism came together at this major event to help scores of needy passengers.
- Providing all types of logistical support and resources (goods and services) was a critical factor. Success would rest on providing the required number of ambulances, rescue units, firefighter/EMTs, food and beverages, portable lighting units, the rail crane and portable toilets, to mention just a few items. The Fire Ops Center had the responsibility to handle all of the many requests. This was a well-supported and well-stocked event. At one point, a short roadbed was constructed under the direction of Lieutenant Sean Egan to allow for transport units to move patients from the crash scene to the hospital. This lessened the risk of injury of the hundreds of responders. A temporary morgue had to be established to process the precious human remains properly and respectfully. The needed materials and supplies had to be provided and supported until all nine fatalities were processed and removed by our chief medical examiner.
- Only one minor firefighter injury was reported. More than 250 firefighters and EMTs worked for about 30 hours under extremely difficult conditions and only one minor injury speaks volumes about the overall safety program and the risk management profile that was used during this event.
- Accountability was implemented early and carefully tracked until this alarm was terminated. Our department uses aides (the rank of fire sergeant). Sergeant Eddie Lehan had this responsibility and he ensured that we knew who was at this incident, where they were, what they were doing and the conditions that they were operating under. Further, apparatus and other response assets in the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) zone — mostly police units — had to be accounted for. The personnel accountability tag system worked.
- The Fire Operations Center coordinated and provided a wide range of resources. The derailment required a third alarm and several special calls for help. This fact mandated the need to cover most of our firehouse with outside resources. While DC Fire and EMS was operating at this event, more than 400 other calls for assistance we received and answered. Making sure that all of the resource needs were met and keeping track of a very busy system was a major task for Fire Ops.
Managing media relations was a significant focus. Dozens of radio, TV and newspaper reporters from around the world were in attendance. At one count, there were more than 50 TV satellite trucks on location reporting on this story. The typical news reporter assumption in the greater DC area that all events are terrorist acts until proven otherwise. This crash is under investigation by the NTSB and terrorism has been ruled out.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Police Chief Cathy Lanier attended each of the three structured and planned press conferences along with various other experts and dignitaries. The scheduled media conferences kept the media informed and updated with the rescue and recovery activities. About a dozen live broadcasts were supported by the mayor, police chief or fire chief to include a national appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" program. Only a single complaint was expressed by a local reporter about a failure to provide timely information. Not that even one complaint is acceptable, but considering the number and the level of reports that were on location, that was exceptional.
The incident command staff (overhead team) had to forecast the situation status and resource needs well in advance of the actual need. For instance, quickly stopping all train traffic (CSX, MARC and Metro) at and near the affected area was a critical safety factor. Next, ensuring the third-rail power was locked out and tagged out had to occur to protect all first responder members and the train riders.
Some not-so-obvious considerations had to be addressed early to have a positive impact. Calling for the rail crane to de-scale and remove the huge chucks of steel hours later or providing direction for rescue work-rest cycles and relief of fatigued personnel would all be examples of forecasting the operation needs and staying ahead of the events so that it would end successfully. Being able to forecast and prepare for eventual needs is a skill of a highly experienced team that is battle tested and that has worked together many times.
- Critical incident stress management (CISM) was provided or offered to all responding members as part of the termination process of this event. Our peer debriefing team is led by Battalion Fire Chief Claude Ford and Lieutenant Kevin Stuart, supported by Father Peter Weiss. They were activated early for this high-profile, gruesome event. As they were starting the CISM process, we received a call from International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 36 President Raymond Sneed, offering to support the departmental team's effort to assist all of our employees. No members have been referred to mental health professionals, but several have had follow-up peer sessions.
Finally, I need to complete this report by pointing out the Special Operations members of DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. Without question, every member who attended this difficult event contributed greatly to the success of this agency. However, if there is a "first among equals," it would have been the Special Operations members at this alarm. All of their skills were taxed and they, along with every responder, answered the challenge.
DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. He is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He has been an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy since 1983. Rubin is the author of the book Rube's Rules for Survival.