New White Paper Examines Response to Boston Marathon Bombing Events

Contact: Doug Gavel
Phone: (617) 495-1115
Date: April 03, 2014

Cambridge MA – One year after two homemade bombs exploded along the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three, injuring dozens and traumatizing an entire city, jurisdictions both here and abroad remain on high alert to the possibility of similar unexpected, complex and potentially deadly events in their own backyard. A new White Paper co-authored by four scholars of emergency management and criminal justice at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Law School (HLS) and Business School (HBS) draws upon the marathon bombing events to provide responders with concrete and actionable steps to help improve their own emergency management planning efforts now and in the years to come.

“Why Was Boston Strong? Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombing” dissects the myriad events that occurred in and around the city between April 15-19, 2013. The White Paper's authors – Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard (HKS/HBS); Christine M. Cole (HKS); Arnold M. Howitt (HKS); and Philip B. Heymann (HLS) – analyze in detail the 100 hours "of intense drama that riveted the attention of the nation" between the moment the first bomb exploded near the marathon finish line until the arrest of the lone surviving suspect more than four days later -- identifying those critical moments when planning, preparation and coordination paid off -- as well as those occasions when performance left room for improvement.

Based primarily on an extensive series of interviews with command-level officials from a range of agencies and jurisdictions, the White Paper was prepared for and later refined following a conference of top public safety officials; practitioners with responsibilities for securing large-scale events; and scholars of emergency management, organizational behavior, and criminal justice. This expert dialogue, which featured participants from both the United States and abroad, took place at the Kennedy School on March 13-14, 2014.

“Boston Strong” – the widely used slogan that emerged after the bombings – not only describes the spirit of those who participate in the marathon and those who live and work in the metropolitan area, but also symbolizes the depth of preparedness among medical and emergency personnel, the Boston Athletic Association and its thousands of volunteers and the public safety personnel. Boston was Strong in large part due to its readiness for catastrophe.

The report found that the response to the bombing and its aftermath was driven in part by the effective interaction between senior emergency personnel and their subordinates (i.e., command relationships), as well as by collaborative interaction with their counterparts in the many public safety agencies who were involved in the initial response to the bombing and subsequent investigation for suspects (i.e., coordination relationships). “Our research suggests that major contributing factors to much of what went well – and to some of went less well – were the command and coordination structures, relationships, and circumstances through which responding organizations were deployed and managed,” they write.

The authors point to the quick and effective response to the victims at the bombing sites as an example of a well-planned and well-executed operation. Among the takeaways from the events of April 15, 2013, which likely resulted in a far lower casualty count than would have been expected at an incident of this magnitude, the authors highlight:

  • The rapid response by survivors, bystanders, and professional responders at the bombing site.
  • Effective on-scene triage, coordinated apportionment of victims among area hospitals’ trauma centers, and very rapid transport to hospitals.
  • The rapid mobilization of area hospital emergency departments and their ability to handle the surge of wounded survivors.

The authors also identify a number of effective actions taken by law enforcement personnel, including:

  • Their rapid response to the scene and the securing of the blast areas.
  • The effective establishment of central coordination and command.
  • Quick organization of investigative work.

Much of this success, they observe, was “the result of extensive and careful planning, years of investments and training, structure, skill- and relationship- and trust-building.”

In addition, the authors outline a number of substantive recommendations for law enforcement and other disciplines and agencies charged with preparing for and responding to both large planned events and unforeseen, complex and rapidly-evolving crises. Among other recommendations, the authors urge them:

  • To quickly establish a cross-agency, senior strategic and policy-making level of engagement and secure command post -- with dedicated space for strategic, tactical and logistical teams -- that looks to both the big picture and a longer timeframe.
  • To provide responders and political leaders with more training and experience in the doctrine of incident command in complex circumstances through exercises and utilization of regular “fixed events” to develop skills.
  • To develop a more effective process to manage the inevitable self-deployment of responders who in response to crisis arrive as independent individuals rather than in organized units.
  • To critically review current training and practice on control of weapons fire, which may call for new paradigms.
  • To design and routinely establish a staffing schedule for all levels of personnel ensuring rotation and rest that are essential to sustained performance when critical events last for days.
  • To consider a legislative change to the HIPAA regulations regarding release of information to family members about the health status of patients critically injured in an attack, in order to provide them the best care possible and to cater to their wide range of needs.

Many of the observations and recommendations made in the report – though based on the unique experiences in the Boston area—are intended to provide future guidance to event organizers and emergency personnel around the world grappling with the logistical challenges of securing similar large scale events.

"We believe that many of the lessons about mastering highly uncertain and fluid events will apply to many other event scenarios just as well -- natural disasters and industrial accidents, for example, in addition to terror-related events," the authors write.

Development of the White Paper and organization of the conference in March benefitted from the expertise and assistance of the International Centre for Sport Security, as well as the support of various divisions of Harvard University.

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