Measuring the Marathon

April 3, 2014
By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Gazette

As the 118th running of the Boston Marathon approaches this month, a new report published by Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) Program on Crisis Leadership looks back at last year’s bombings and manhunt, identifying key factors that contributed to many of the strengths of the emergency and law-enforcement response, as well as to some notable weaknesses.

Based on confidential interviews with 25 senior-level officials and extensive research by Harvard crisis-management and criminal-justice experts, “Why Was Boston Strong? Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombing” broadly examines the circumstances, the command and coordination structures, and the actions taken by municipal, state, and federal police and law-enforcement agencies, as well as by area hospitals and other medical personnel who supported what the report calls the largely effective coordination of many disparate organizations at a time of heightened drama and uncertainty.

“Boston was strong in the face of a horrific terrorist bombing of an iconic city for a host of interrelated reasons,” the report finds. “A few must simply be attributed … to infusions of good luck that favored the response and reduced the consequences of the attack. Others were the result of careful planning and fully intentional action, but are nonetheless unique to the Boston setting, and would be hard to replicate elsewhere.” But most “were intentional and are replicable elsewhere. … We seek to understand both what worked best, why it worked, and what worked less effectively — all with the aim of assessing what can be done going forward in Boston and elsewhere to prepare even better for future events.”

“A scary feature of this”

“It’s uncomfortable to think about this, but you don’t have to think very hard as a terrorist to design something that is a lot worse than this event. And that’s a scary feature of this to us, and that was one of the other things that attracted our attention to it in the beginning,” said Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management at HKS and Eliot I. Snider and Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Leonard co-directs the Program on Crisis Leadership at HKS and is an author of the report. “On the one hand, appropriately we celebrate the incredibly good work that people did and the heroism that people showed, and the determination of the people who were injured to go on. … But we need to remember, this was a relatively small and unsuccessful attack by a couple of untrained amateurs.”

Among the positives, the report points to the proximity of hospitals and the rapid and expert care offered by medical personnel and volunteers at the bombing site, to the widespread compliance by area residents to a public “shelter in place” request by the governor and emergency-management officials as police searched for a bombing suspect, and to the relationships and familiarity of top political and law-enforcement officials.

But last year’s crisis also underscores the need for organizations and agencies likely to be called upon in a future emergency, including nonprofits such as the Boston Athletic Association, to prepare both internally and with organizations they can expect to work alongside. The public’s defiance in the face of terror that week, embodying the idea behind “Boston Strong,” is a useful kind of “psychological resilience” that ought to be cultivated in other communities, the report finds.

The report — co-authored by Christine M. Cole, executive director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at HKS; Arnold M. Howitt, executive director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS and co-director of the Program On Crisis Leadership with Leonard; and Philip B. Heymann, James Barr Ames Professor of Law at Harvard Law School — centers on the natural friction between the demands placed on senior-level law-enforcement commanders to focus on strategy and the strong pull from and need for oversight and coordination of rank-and-file officers as they carry out essential tactical duties.

While the report credits the leaders for being generally unified and clear about their roles during the immediate aftermath of the April 15, 2013, bombing, that comes in sharp contrast to breakdowns that occurred at times among rank-and-file officers in the field. The report says that rivalries and distrust among some officers from different departments, coupled with a failure to recognize and accept the authority of an unfamiliar supervisor on the scene and inadequate training on maintaining “fire control,” all helped create dangerous situations in two critical incidents. read more

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Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management

Herman “Dutch” Leonard, the George F. Baker Jr. Professor of Public Management

Photo Credit: Martha Stewart

“It’s uncomfortable to think about this, but you don’t have to think very hard as a terrorist to design something that is a lot worse than this event," said Herman “Dutch” Leonard.

Arnold M. Howitt, Ash Center executive director and adjunct lecturer in public policy

Arnold M. Howitt, adjunct lecturer in public policy and Ash Center executive director