Washington transit’s radio system plagued by dead zones

The D.C. Metro’s flawed radio system is a safety issue for police officers, passengers

November 11, 2011

Washington’s Metro radio system is deeply flawed, according to the Washington Examiner. The system is plagued with dead spots throughout its network, which can make communicating during emergencies difficult for the transit officials.

This is especially a safety issue; as the transit agency’s police forces patrol the underground network, radio failures put their security and passengers’ safety in jeopardy, according to the police union 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. No one was hurt because of the Halloween problems, but it’s another addition to a laundry list of past mishaps.

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 flimsy solution at best, as more than half of the underground stations do not 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.

A radio is also a more optimal choice because an officer can just push a button in an emergency without taking his or her eyes off what they are doing to dial a phone.

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. "We're working toward resolution of that as quickly as possible."

The agency will have to replace its radio system to comply with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 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.

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