Calls for Help on Metro Go Unanswered

By Tisha Thompson and Rick Yarborough
|  Tuesday, Mar 26, 2013  |  Updated 4:58 AM EDT
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The News4 I-Team finds dozens of complaints from Metro riders who say the emergency buttons didn't work when they called for help.

Tisha Thompson & Rick Yarborough

The News4 I-Team finds dozens of complaints from Metro riders who say the emergency buttons didn't work when they called for help.

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We’ve all been taught if you see something, say something. But Metro riders contacted the News4 I-Team saying no one responded when they called for help.

Brawls, robberies even an unconscious passenger. Real emergencies do happen sometimes on Metro trains. But some riders say when they pushed the red emergency buttons located on railcars, no one answered.

Metro rider Leonard Wise told us, "They don't work".  Wise said a fight recently broke out on the Orange Line near Eastern Market, trapping him in the corner. 

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"It was one guy, three guys beating the hell out of him, excuse my language," said Wise. He managed to get around them, hitting the emergency button. “We called. We hit the call button. I pulled the emergency, pushed the call button. I did everything. There was no response," said Wise said.

He's not alone. The News4 I-Team spent months gathering dozens of complaints over the past two years through a Public Access to Records Policy request. In those documents we found complaints like, “Calls using the emergency button were ignored," "unreasonable and scary that driver never responded" and "call box apparently did not work."

Other unanswered calls belonged to a rider on the Green Line reporting a fire, an elderly man beaten on the Red Line and a passenger on the Orange Line robbed.

Dan Stessel with Metro told the News4 I-Team, “Over the course of two years, it's maybe once, twice a week where there's an incident like this that's happening where we need to take follow up action." Stessel says that's a small number of complaints compared to the 730,000 daily trips.

"When we get a report of a car that has a malfunctioning intercom in the car, it's sent for inspection. If it's on the line at the time, it will be taken out of line once it reaches the end of the line," explained Stessel.

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Stessel says inspectors do catch intercom problems with daily and more thorough monthly inspections. The records obtained by the News4 I-Team show almost 170 intercom malfunctions since 2011.

Metro said there might be other reasons your call goes unanswered. The train operator actually might not hear you because you're continuously holding down the red button. If you're calling for help, you only need to press the button once and start speaking. Also, the system can only handle three calls at a time.

Metro is considering posting signs on railcars to make the process clearer.

But even when intercoms work, complaints we found show some train operators don't offer help.

Like when a confused 85-year-old man on the Orange Line called for help because he couldn't get up, only to be told by the operator, "’Help’ does not mean this kind of help."

Stessel admitted that kind of response is inappropriate and should be reported. "We can go back and retrain the operator or discipline as necessary, but it's important that we know about those types of incidents," said Stessel.

As for faulty intercoms, Metro said a solution is just down the track.

New trains are being produced now to replace the oldest cars. They'll have digital communication, clearer intercoms and even a camera so the operator can see inside each car. Riders should start seeing them next year.

But until that happens, some riders like Leonard Wise said they're not taking chances. "Just like I'm going to walk back home today, they don't have to worry about me on the Metro no more," said Wise.

We did find examples of riders using the buttons for non-emergencies, because they missed their stop or to ask directions. Metro stresses the emergency intercoms should only be used for true emergencies. 
 
To report an incident or make a comment about Metro click here: Metro Customer Comment Form.

How We Did It

Under WMATA’s Public Access to Records Policy, the News4 I-Team requested all complaints and incident reports concerning call boxes and/or emergency call buttons on Metro railcars and/or platforms since January 2011.

To read comments/complaints from Metro riders click here: Metro Call Box Complaints.

To read Metro maintenance records for intercom malfunctions click here: Metro Intercom Incidents.

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