November 17, 2015

CHICAGO (Nov. 17)—Nobody was hurt when a fire broke out on track 3 of Chicago Union Station in 2012.

But Cederick Fuller got alarmed. As Legislative Representative of SMART-TD Local #171, Fuller realized that BNSF Railway employees operating commuter trains under contract to Metra were vulnerable while laying over in the crew facility of Chicago’s aging Chicago Union Station.

The employee welfare facility, located in the basement under the passenger concourse, seemingly had no fire alarm. Evacuation routes were posted, but most employees were not familiar with them. Fire drills had been held at irregular intervals, but no formal evacuation procedure had been developed, and crew members had not been trained or instructed in how to respond to an emergency.

Fuller advised Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy of the situation, but addressing it proved to be complicated. Although Metra is the biggest user of the station, the facility actually is owned by Amtrak and managed by Amtrak’s contractor, CBRE.

“I met with Amtrak and other CUS building officials in December of 2012,” Guy said. “I laid out the concerns I received from Brother Fuller and others and requested a more aggressive approach in ensuring member safety when in the welfare facility in the basement of CUS.”

Fortunately, all of the players agreed to work toward a solution. Hygieneering, Inc., a workplace-safety consultant based in suburban Willowbrook, was hired by Amtrak to review the building’s fire-safety practices and equipment.

A fire drill was held February 12, 2013, and the results revealed shortcomings on the part of both building management and crew members using the lounge. Illinois Legislative Board Chairman John O’Brien reported that “of the six battery-operated emergency lights, located in the main hallway, locker rooms, and lavatory, only one functioned properly when the test button was depressed.”

O’Brien also reported that during a recent power failure, magnetic door locks controlling entrance to the day room failed to disengage automatically as intended.

“The building engineer states that when the fire alarm is activated that all the locks in the facility automatically disengage,” O’Brien wrote. “That is not what is happening during a power outage. This too needs immediate attention by the building manager.”

Perhaps most ominous of all, O’Brien noted that several occupants of the lounge, including SMART-TD members, ignored the drill and refused to participate in it.

When another drill was held June 4, 2014, many of the deficiencies had been addressed. Instead of just a raucous noise from a bullhorn, oral announcements informed occupants of the emergency. But problems remained: The speaker in the day room still wasn’t working, and several occupants of other spaces did not hear the alarm because they were listening to loud music on headphones. O’Brien recommended that a revolving strobe light be installed to alert those unable to hear.

The latest drill was held October 29 of this year and included officials of SMART-TD, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET), BNSF, Metra, CBRE, Amtrak, Amtrak Police, the Chicago Fire Department and Amtrak’s private security contractor. O’Brien reported the audible alerts had improved significantly and the electric door locks released as programmed in response to the alarm.

But the strobe-light system still had not been installed, and machinery mounted on the ceiling blocked the occupants’ view of the illuminated exit signs and from certain angles. Amtrak says these items will be addressed in the final round of improvements.

“We started out with a member-initiated concern three years ago,” Guy said. “That led to an initial evacuation drill where three people, just three, attended.

“Fast forward three years,” Guy said, “and you can see the level of professionalism, and protection, has elevated. We now have reps from the BNSF, Metra, BLET, Amtrak Police, CUS Engineering Dept. and the Chicago Fire Department attending these drills.

“Our members needed and requested a functioning warning system,” Guy said, “I think we can confidently say that our members’ safety in that facility has vastly improved due to our activism on their behalf.”

Guy said he called Amtrak recently and passed on the union’s appreciation to Director of Government Relations Ray Lang, who also serves as president of their Chicago Union Station Co. subsidiary.

“Ray was very enthusiastic from the start, but Union Station is a 100-year old building, and you don’t discover its deficiencies until you look for them,” Guy said.

But while Union Station’s emergency-alert technology will soon be entirely up to date, the same cannot be said of the railroad crew members who use it. O’Brien reported that during the most recent fire drill several occupants of the lounge again refused to participate and made no effort to study their materials on building evacuation routes.

“It’s ironic,” Guy said. “Our union spends so much effort on getting the railroads to design facilities and work practices that will keep our members safe, while at the same time some members fail to use the lifesaving measures we have placed at their disposal.

“We’re encouraged that our participation levels have improved with every drill,” Guy said. “Here’s hoping that we will have 100 percent participation in the near future.

“Union Station’s a hundred years old, but it’s learning new tricks,” he said. “You can too.”