Image by Erin used with permission.

An internal Metro review suggests that Metro’s Fire Marshal’s office is understaffed and overworked. The office had a single employee up until 2016 for ensuring fire code compliance of the entire Metro system.

The review was performed by Metro’s Quality Assurance, Internal Compliance & Oversight (QICO) department and released earlier in November. They wrote a number of Corrective Action Plans for Metro management to fix the issues they found in order to ensure the office works better in the future.

Multiple areas for improvement were found

QICO describes the Fire Marshal’s Office (FMO) as having eight people on staff, which has been the case for less than a year. Their review states, “Before that, the entire FMO was a single employee.”

The Fire Marshal’s office would be responsible for assuring fire, life, and safety (FLS) systems throughout the entire Metro system. These systems include fire extinguishers being where they should be, stand pipes working properly if firefighters need to hook up and get water to fight a fire, or making sure emergency staircases to escape from tunnels are safe and not being blocked by materials or obstructed somehow.

A typical fire marshal for Arlington or Fairfax County, for example, is tasked with providing permits for new construction, inspecting construction sites, performing general safety inspections, and enforcing fire code regulations.

The QICO review notes that the Fire Marshal’s office roles and responsibilities aren’t clearly defined, which could potentially lead to gaps in reviews or confusion during incident responses. Several tasks listed under the FMO’s job description, including communicating with first responders and training personnel, are performed by other groups within Metro even though they may not technically be tasked with those.

Arson inspection canine Shasta on duty during the 2011 Arson Dog Recertification class. Image by State Farm licensed under Creative Commons.

On top of not performing all its assigned responsibilities, the report notes that the “mission statement, goals, responsibilities, procedures, schedules, standards of inspection, etc. have not yet been developed and there is no time table to develop them.”

The review also notes that the FMO “does not have procedural documents,” meaning that “it is difficult to determine if the department is performing in accordance to any set of requirements.” The only document QICO was able to review was the job description of the Fire Marshal, which showed that the department doesn’t perform all of its assigned responsibilities.

It would be incredibly difficult for those outside the department to determine how well it’s working if there are no requirement documents to base their actions off of.

The QICO review team gave Metro management a list of recommendations which should be implemented to help in closing these gaps which they identified, including establishing better inspection and reporting standards to bring consistency to FLS inspections.

Fire Marshal reports don’t inspect all fire safety components

The FMO department shared four reports with the QICO inspection team, which were then reviewed to see what they covered, the data, and what they didn’t include. The shared reports were noted to have covered “minor housekeeping observations” but didn’t look at the overall “big picture” items which would be needed in case of an emergency — sprinklers, stand pipes (for providing water to firefighters), or communication systems.

Image by Erin used with permission.

The reports also appear to show that the department does not inspect the testing and maintenance programs of the fire and safety systems.

The report indicates it is possible that some of the lacking inspections here could have been performed by other departments. The Plant Maintenance department and Engineering and Architecture department currently assist in developing maintenance procedures for smoke detectors and performing testing of the devices, which otherwise would fall under the Fire Marshal’s Office. This could lead to records being stored in disparate areas making future inspections more challenging, or could lead to deficiencies going unnoticed.

Understaffing has been a challenge for years, and appears to be the primary challenge. The QICO report notes that the department consisted of a single person — the Fire Marshal — up until 2016. The office was expanded to five employees in 2016, and then to eight in around 2017.

Metro says the department itself is relatively new — started only in 2012 — and took over some functions that the agency’s Office of Emergency Management previously handled.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.