Early Friday morning marked the 15th time this month that Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service crews have responded to a live fire or arcing insulator event at a Metro station in the county.
Nearly all of those incidents—13 of 15—happened on the tracks at or near the Bethesda, Medical Center or Friendship Heights stations. The June tally of 15 fire department responses is the most in a month this year, though the number of incidents has increased gradually each month, according to fire department data.
Friday’s incident, which department spokesperson Pete Piringer said happened at 4:15 a.m., was emblematic of how many of the incidents have played out.
Firefighters responded to the Bethesda Metro station for the report of an arcing insulator, which can happen when water or other material makes contact with the track’s electrified third rail.
Firefighters found no smoke and no fire, awaited an emergency response team from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and then handed off the responsibilities for fixing the arcing insulator to a Metro maintenance team, Piringer said.
Some of the incidents have required Metro to close down one of two tracks on the Red Line through the area, which can cause traveling delays. On May 19, there was enough smoke visible for Metro to close the Bethesda station for about 30 minutes just as the morning rush hour period started.
The uptick in arcing insulator incidents comes after a January incident in which a Metro rider died after being on a train that filled with smoke near an arcing insulator that occurred near the L’Enfant Plaza station.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating that incident. Piringer said county fire services Chief Scott Goldstein is scheduled to take part in a panel before the NTSB next week about emergency responses to Metro stations.
The increase also comes more than a year before Metro is scheduled to shut down the section of the Red Line from the Grosvenor station to Friendship Heights for 14 weekends to fix leaks in the tunnel ceiling.
That $12.2 million repair project can’t be moved up, according to a Metro spokesperson, because it requires extensive engineering studies and prefabricated materials—such as a precast concrete arch to install in the Red Line tunnel.
The county fire department provided Bethesda Beat with data on all 46 “live fire” responses to Metro stations in the county this year, prior to Friday morning’s response at the Bethesda station.
All of the incidents were characterized as either an “arcing insulator-type event” or “full assignment,” which occurs when there is smoke or fire in the tunnel with no known source. Piringer said some of the incidents might have included small fires involving brush or trash.
Firefighters have responded to the Bethesda station 17 times in 2015, the most responses to any station in the county. They’ve responded to the Medical Center station in Bethesda nine times, including back-to-back responses June 1 and 2.
They’ve responded to the Friendship Heights station three times, including two separate incidents June 13. The station also gets fire service from D.C. firefighters because it’s on the border between the two jurisdictions.
On June 1, firefighters hit all three area stations, responding to a call at Friendship Heights at 7:44 a.m., a call at Bethesda at 9:16 a.m. and a call at Medical Center at 7:45 p.m.