Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 29, 2009

Metro crash commentary

Filed under: Preparedness and Response — by Philip J. Palin on June 29, 2009

As the sun rises over the Atlantic the readers of HLSwatch are heavily concentrated around Washington D.C. 

By about 1:00 pm the rest of the continent begins to outnumber our beltway readers.  This afternoon there are two pieces from Sunday’s  Washington Post that I want to be sure the beyond-the-beltway crowd don’t miss (and I assume most of the early morning crowd has already read).

Robert McCartney is a columnist for the Post’s Metro section.  The human side of the Metro crash is well-captured in his piece, “Co-workers Proud of Train Operator’s Courage.”

Also in yesterday’s paper is “When Fail-Safe Fails” by Charles B. Perrow, emeritus professor of sociology at Yale and author of Normal Accidents and The Next Catastrophe

Some key assumptions of each author are in tension.  I don’t presume to know which is closer to the truth in this particular circumstance.  Depending on context, each have important implications for prevention and mitigation.

UPDATE: A Monday story in the Post is headlined, “Metrorail Crash May Exemplify Automation Paradox.”

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 29, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

Charles Perrow’s second book listed above has a very distorted and misleading history of the Federal Civil Defense Program as its premise. Remarkably that history’s distortion has prevented a preparedness mentality from developing in the US citizenry despite the fact that resiliency starts from the bottom up. SEE 2002 CSIS study: Amercian Civil Security–author Amanda Dory. Do you have a preparedness kit? In 1982 I was below ground on the metro liner fatality line during the Air Florida Crash. Not one passenger had a flashlight. WE WERE BELOW GROUND FOR SEVERAL HOURS WITH NO LIGHT AND NO CIRCULATING AIR UNTIL FIRE SERVICE LED US 700 YDS BACK TO SMITHSONIAN STATION. Actually the passengers were great. We forced open one door and no one panicked and standing passengers sat down and seat rotation was accomplished. Coincident events? You bet. But now slightly claustrophobic since that event. Also there are some real interesting points in the articles listed above and also some detailed discourse on communicatino failures on the event in CRISIS BLOGGER!

Comment by Mark Chubb

June 29, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

I am not sure I sense the same tension to which you refer, Phil. Perrow did not argue that the train driver was inattentive, only that systems like the one she was operating, which do not actively engage the operator’s attention, are inherently problematic.

My take-away from these two pieces are that a system that depends upon and arguably works because of the dedication of its workers to the public service ethos should do more to engage them in their work. The union’s take is probably that Metro management opposes this because it would warrant higher wages for its train operators. If the evidence suggests Metro failed to invest in improvements to the system they already have, that may be a fair criticism. If the cost of system improvements or maintenance is made higher by its design (integrated versus modular), improvements may be difficult to implement whether they require more operator engagement or not.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 29, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

Your take more accurately reflects the policy implications. The tension I perceived was that of focusing on the more human dimension or the more technical dimension. McCartney wrote of human fear and courage, while Perrow wrote, “The Metro driver apparently had only two tasks: closing the doors and standing over a large stop button…” They were dealing with the same event, but from two very different angles… or at least it seemed to me.

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