WASHINGTON – Riders will have to wait at least five years to receive cell phone service on Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority trains, according to an underground communication study conducted on Metrorail unveiled Oct. 22.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, with D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management, initiated the study to evaluate the communication systems for Metrorail and procedures of first responders for Metrorail.
Before workers can begin installing the system to enable cell phone service on the trains, Metro General Management must sign an agreement with the phone service providers involved in the project.
Problems with connectivity of radio communication contributed to the delayed response of first responders to the smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza Station in January, according to the underground communications study.
Prince George’s County Fire Chief Marc Bashour said gaps in communication between the police and fire fighters in the tunnels versus people on the platform lengthened the response time and passengers’ exposure to smoke during the incident.
The DC Fire Department and the Prince George’s County Fire Department are among those who have worked to improve radio communication, according to representatives from both departments.
Bashour said when Metro establishes a new radio system years from now, Metro police and Metro emergency response personnel will have identical radio systems.
They currently cannot communicate between outlets due to operating at different frequencies.
Bashour said the holdup to installing the wiring and technology to allow cell phone service in the tunnels is an infrastructure issue.
“It’s all about running the infrastructure to support the signal,” he said.
WMATA would install improvements to radio communication and towers for cell phone service in the tunnels at the same time to minimize the amount of disruption to Metro service.
“For WMATA, it’s a double-edged sword. For us it’s an issue of public safety,” said Bashour, speaking on behalf of fire departments and police who respond to Metro incidents. “We need to make sure we have access to 911, and that’s why we’re going to continue to push to get this done as quickly as possible.”
WMATA and four cell phone service providers wrote an agreement to begin to install the necessary technology on the more than 100 miles of track.
However, as of Oct. 22 Safety and Security Committee meeting, interim general manager Jack Requa did not sign it.
Melanie Ortel, spokesperson for Verizon, said ATT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon would be included in the agreement between service providers and WMATA to set up cell phone service on the tracks.
Ortel said she could not comment on the estimated project time frame.