January 15, 2015 by Rich Cooper

The recent tragic fire onboard the Washington, DC, subway system that claimed the life of one passenger and injured more than 80 others reveals some ominous signs for the Nation’s Capitol. Besides the loss of life, the harm to passengers and having public confidence in the often-maligned public transportation system re-ruptured, the less-than-immediate response to rescuing trapped passengers is drawing a lot of concern by elected officials and an anxious public.

As bad as all of those things are, there are a specific set of news reports that are giving me even greater concern, and those are the reports related to the performance (or rather non-performance) of the emergency radios used by DC’s Fire & Rescue Services. While it is still early in the accident investigation, if reports prove true that radios did not work and did not allow them to communicate with one another and other emergency services responding to the incident, the public outrage over the situation should be loud and fierce.

After nearly 14 years since the 9/11 attacks and millions of dollars spent equipping and training Washington’s first responders, for communications interoperability issues to remain a performance problem, especially in a potential mass casualty event, is an outrage.

The National Capital Region is blessed with some of the finest public servants who have been more than well-equipped and regularly trained over the past decade to deal with a range of risks and threats. If the performance we saw this week in responding to the urgent calls of gasping passengers aboard a smoke-filled train car is any indication of how well those equipment purchases and scenario training have gone, I am even more outraged.

The case studies on failed communications interoperability are many. None is more tragic than what occurred on 9/11, when first responders in New York City could not speak to one another to hear the orders to evacuate the towers prior to their collapse. There is no way of knowing if the radios and communications protocols had worked that day how many more first responder lives might have been saved. After that fateful day, all we knew was that there was a serious operational problem that needed to be addressed. Since that day, hundreds of thousands of people have worked on the technical, operational and programmatic challenges that are interoperability. It is by no means a simple fix, but it is necessary one and it is solvable.

To hear that this problem has revealed itself in this latest incident in Washington truly strikes fear within me, but it has to bring inspiration to the terrorists who will always look upon Washington, DC, as a prize worth going after. While a lot has been done to safeguard many of Washington’s buildings, monuments, and transportation systems with cameras, dogs, and alert personnel, if we still can’t fix the fixable, it makes the bad guys’ job that much easier. That’s not a feeling I, as a resident of the National Capital Region, want to feel, especially after the terror attack in Paris last week.

As a number of Obama Administration officials have publicly stated over the past weeks and months, the threat matrix is very high. That’s nerve wracking enough for the professionals in the intelligence community, but for the public at large, it is cause for even greater concern. This week, DC’s Metro system and its Fire and Emergency Services units did not do a lot to give us any semblance of confidence that they are ready when the real attack occurs. And folks, that attack will occur. It’s not a question of “if” but a question of “when.”

I just hope that when it does occur, the radios and their interoperability are not the issue that day because there will be bigger issues to contend with than the unresolved and still resolvable ones of 14 years ago.