Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

WMATA debates how to communicate during disasters

October 27, 2011 - 10:13 AM
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Rosslyn after the suicide attempt. (Photo: Andrew Beaujon)

Metro's board is reviewing how the transit agency handles disaster this morning. Specifically, they're looking at how WMATA reacted to the suicide attempt from that 39-year-old man from McLean, Virginia, who died a week after descending onto the rail tracks at Clarendon and being struck by a train. Not surprisingly, WMATA reports that the greatest degree of fear surrounded the Rosslyn Metro station, where west-bound trains were being offloaded. The rush-hour frenzy created the packed, confused scene shown in the following video. The transit agency had to suddenly reroute buses in order to get shuttles running throughout northern Virginia, were single-tracking, and people were stuck in the system for a long time during these days. The Post presents a nice WMATA timeline of how the reaction unfolded.

How should WMATA have reacted?

Right now, the board and General Manager Richard Sarles are debating exactly how they should have communicated the situation to the press. WMATA has sought to revamp and push forward their communication efforts throughout the last year. What's interesting now about big incidents like the rush-hour suicide attempt is how much the communication efforts are digital. They take the form of tweets, Facebook, and phone calls from Metro's communications center of three people to the various media. During that frenzy, I called Metro and sure enough, was able to speak with chief spokesperson Dan Stessel about how the situation was unfolding. The board members wondered whether that was enough, however. Perhaps, for instance, some senior Metro executives or a fire chief or another official should have been on the scene at Rosslyn or elsewhere to reassure any news cameras there. What matters more — big, sweeping press gestures like that? Tweets, website updates, and e-alerts? Good signs to alert people about what's happening? These crises happen suddenly and WMATA's resources are stretched thin during those times. As wonderful as all these possibilities may sound, Metro does have to make choices. What fraction of Metro's riders will see a given tweet?

General Manager Sarles disagreed that any senior Metro officials or others should have attempted to make their way to the scene. To divert police and resources to part the crowds during rush hour, to make their way there, would interfere with WMATA's ability to truly react to the crowds and genuine mechanical challenges happening at the time.

"We’ve then lost the ability to communicate with the public," Sarles said. "I feel very strongly about that."

The communication should lie with the centers within WMATA, with the chief spokesperson, with keeping the lines of dialogue open among the officials, the spokesperson, and people on the scene. The communication debate remains open, and WMATA is continuing to develop plans for how to handle crises at major Metro stations as they happen.

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