CONFERENCE REPORT: ‘The 2013 Boston Marathon: How the Multi-Discipline, Multi-Jurisdiction Approach to Planning for the Marathon Affected the Response to, and Recovery From, the Bombings’

Published:  30 June, 2014

As presented by Kurt N. Schwartz, Undersecretary for Homeland Security and Emergency Management in the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS), Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, during NFPA 2014 Conference and Expo.

After a quick show of hands of how many people in the audience were at the Boston Marathon in 2013 (a couple of delegates only) Undersecretary Kurt Schwartz set the scene around the peculiarities of this race. Unlike any other marathon in the world, the Boston Marathon (BM) is a straight line marathon (not a loop) that starts in Hopkington (26.2 miles from the finish of the race) and continues through eight cities and towns and three counties, finishing in the tourist heart of Boston. Eight cities and towns translates into eight incident commands.

2013 had 27,000 official runners plus a few thousand unofficial runners (without numbers) known as ‘bandits’. The BM draws huge international attention as it is the one marathon of the so-called ‘majors’ which requires qualification – namely being able to complete the race within a certain time – and is therefore televised in 20 countries. There were around 400 reporters in Boston at the time, and between 700,000 and one million spectators along the route.

The marathon course remains packed for all 26.2 miles so it is virtually impossible to cross the marathon route, explained Schwartz: ‘This means we actually have 52 miles of public safety operations that we have to police, secure and provide safety and security operations on both sides of the course. So it’s really a 56-mile open and unsecured event. You start understanding the complexity of the planning.’

Planning for the 2013 event started in January, bringing together all the disciplines on a regional, state and federal level. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency has for years served as the multi-jurisdictional planner, with responsibility for bringing all stakeholders together as well as think about threats and hazards. ‘Mother nature is always a hazard that we are most concerned with and over the years it is the hazard that has most played havoc with the race.’ In 2012 the race was within a degree of cancellation due to the high heat, while in 2007 freezing rain lead to cancellation talks for the opposite reason.

Planning, exercising and training takes place every year, including a table-top exercise which in 2013 involved around 75 people. This grew to 450 for the 2014 marathon. In 2012 the exercise scenario was a terrorist attack in Boston. Operation Urban Shield is a large full scale exercise that takes place every year in the Boston Metro. ‘We plan, we train and we exercise and then we deploy a lot of resources. We have done this for years.’

In fact, the BM and the July 4th events that take place in Boston are used as opportunities to exercise the majority of Homeland and Security capabilities to hand. ‘Some have said that we have deployed far in excess of the threats and hazards, or the risks associated with these events. After the bombings, I don’t know if anybody will ever say that again.’

In 2013 the National Guard and soldiers were deployed, as were state regional hazmat capabilities under the fire marshall. CFT Boston also deployed theirs, as were state police helicopters, SWAT teams, DOD detection response teaks, and various task forces for the event of a mass casualty. ‘The deployment of resources was particularly heavy at the start and finish line because that is what our risk, threat and hazard assessments told us, that our risks would be at the beginning and the end of the race. We rethought that for 2014.’

Amongst the hard questions after 2013 was, what would the result have been if the bombings had happened somewhere else in the course? ‘We concluded that it [our response] would not have been as successful as it was in 2013. So we no longer think we have the luxury of putting most of our resources at the beginning and at the end [of the course], keeping our fingers crossed for the 22 miles in between.’

April 15th, 2013

On the day, Schwartz’s role was – as well as state planning lead and state coordinator for the marathon – manager and commander of the multi-agency incident coordination centre. The centre numbered around 75 people, consisting of state partners, stakeholders, state police, fire services, National Guard, transportation, transit, public health. ‘We had all of our federal programs like the FBI, Homeland Security, ATF, Federal Aviation Administration, Coastguard, Boston Athletic Association, Red Cross. For 2014 this grew to around 270 people representing 65 agencies – which may have been overkill – but some of the growth represents us closing gaps that we identified when we looked back at the response in 2013.’

14:50pm

Two bombs went off 12 seconds apart and around a block and a half apart, in Boylston Street. Each backpack contained pressure cooker bombs filled with shrapnel, ball bearings, nails, screws, which the terrorist had set on the ground and walked away from.

Using diagrams and pictures, Schwartz highlighted the location of the bombs and the density of the crowds, he then played a video that ABC News had put together the morning after the bombings, reconstructing the terrible events.

Reconstruction transcript, ABC News:

‘We were able to reconstruct it all, moment by terrifying moment.  The attack appears timed for maximum impact, just before 2:50 PM. This is the view seen by 26,000 marathon runners who were approaching the finish line.  Notice the two explosions rocks the sidewalk along the course, lights go blasting in the air throwing metal shrapnel as crowds gathered at the finish line.  The moment captured from multiple angles just as the race approaches the 4 hour and 10 minute mark.  Marathon runner Bill is knocked to the ground.  12 seconds later as many flee the scene; a second explosion goes off about 130 yards from the first, less than a block away.  As they entered, blood stained the ground, Emergency Medical Technicians, Boston Police and some 400 National Guardsman already on hand for the race, immediately triage the wounded into the medical tent was transformed into a trauma unit.  One guy with his legs gone at the knees [0:24:56.2].  By 3:00 PM just as the President is being briefed on the attacks, reports trickle in of yet another explosion, this time in Boston’s JFK Library.  It’s later deemed unrelated, but in the growing confusion, there were reports of additional crisis and several schools and hospitals being evacuated.  Meanwhile, over 130 victims are being transported to 6 area hospitals. Just after 6:00 PM, President Obama addresses the country and vowed to find those responsible.  “Make no mistake; we will get to the bottom of this.  Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice.”  No matter how many times you see it, it’s still just as terrifying and I’ll show one photograph as well perhaps not to what was not hundreds and hundreds of bags waiting for runners who were never able to claim them.  Again, a snapshot of innocence and perfection on that patriot’s day, suspended if not lost.’

Challenges and best practice

Kurt Schwartz was in charge of the coordination centre 15 miles away from Boston, an underground bunker. At around 14:20, with around 7,000 runners already over the finish line, he decided to go to the finish line and check in with Medical Tent A. At 14:40 the bombs went off to the north of the medical tent, as Kurt was getting out of his car to the south side of the medical tent.

Within two minutes Kurt was at the blast site. ‘I have these pictures because this was unlike any other event from a public safety – from a response standpoint – that I’m aware of. When we think about mass casualty events, what happens is first responders are dispatched, they arrive at the event and as they arrive an incident command is split up at the medical site. This didn’t happen this way. These bombs went off and the first responders were already there, we had hundreds of medical professionals, hundreds of firefighters and police officers, and first responders on Boylston Street and in Medical Tent A.’

This meant two things. The first responders were witnesses and in some cases victims. It also meant that the responders started to work before a command and control structure was in place. ‘The response was way ahead of the command.’

There were two aims in Kurt’s mind as he approached the scene. First to understand the nature and scope of the event, and secondly to help facilitate and unify a multi-disciplined command, as well as to brief the Governor.’

There was no emergency operations centre (EOC) at Boylston Street (‘a lesson learned’) for the marathon, although there were discipline-specific tactical centres. As senior responders from various disciplines turned up, a command was set up at the back of an ambulance. ‘That didn’t work well for a number of reasons. We all – I certainly did – suffer from tunnel vision. I had to take a step back and have a broad view. The first person I encountered when I came to Boylston Street was a person who had lost both his legs. So it’s hard to focus. Some of the commanders went right into rendering aid and I actually saw a lieutenant pull a chief off a patient and say, “You can’t do this. You have got to command. Let us do the work.” It’s hard to stand up effective command amongst the chaos.’

The chaos was compounded by the hundreds of bags that had been left behind by the fleeing spectators and runners. Explosive detection dog teams had moved in and they kept finding suspect packages. ‘We thought we had a number of other bombs on the streets. Our challenge was that we still had patients being carried on the street it was believe there were other bombs there.’

Command was quickly moved to Western Hotel two blocks away, where it was set up in the ballroom, becoming the unified command for the next 36 hours. ‘For there it later moved to Boston Police Headquarters for everything other than the investigation, which went to the terrorism task force in Boston.’

45 minutes into the event discussions began around whether to shut down the Boston subway transit system, a line of which runs directly under Boylston Street.  Protocol for terrorist attacks or threat of terrorist attacks dictated that it be shut down.  ‘We knew we had terrorists in the city but we decided to keep the system open because it semed more important to us to get the million people out of the city. If we had shut it down, we would have a million people stuck in the city with terrorists at large.’

The response was to fortify the subway system and keep it open, using tactical teams.

Whether to ‘shut down the city’ was the other question, and whether to tell everybody to stay at home. In conjunction with the Governor and Mayor the decision was made to keep the city open – but fortified. Critical infrastructure and areas that drew high volumes of people were flooded with tactical teams for the next few days.

Back to the bombings, around 265 people were treated in hospitals, with around 15 needing traumatic amputations of the lower extremities. Six hours into the event around 120 people were critical or with serious injuries. The normal pattern of triage was not followed by EMS, where initial triage/staging areas are set up until enough resources are in place to move to care. The decision was made within two minutes to go into ‘combat medicine’ approach to the trauma, stabilising bleeding followed by rapid transport to trauma centres. Patients were transported to hospitals using various modes of transport, from ambulances to police cruisers, and even prisoner wagon. ‘It worked because so many people were there to provide that care, to put on those tourniquets.’

Fortunately for the city – and uniquely in the US – it has the Boston Medical Intelligence Center which acts as a medical EOC representing dozens of hospitals in the Greater Boston area, including seven Level 1 trauma centers for large preplanned events. Within three minutes of the bombs the BMIC notified all the hospitals of the mass casualty, and subsequently managed the distribution of patients across the trauma centres. ‘We got lucky for another reason. The bombs went off at 14.50, and hospitals change shifts at 15:00. They were all notified at 14.54, and they immediately held their day shifts and they had all their nightshifts already in place.’ Another piece of luck was that the Boston Marathon takes place on Patriot’s Day, which meant that almost no surgeries were planned, making surgical rooms available for the victims.

Following from the bombings, FEMA moved away from a policy that dictates EMS stand outside the hot zone until a zone is rendered safe. ‘What Boston and other events showed us is that if we’re going to save lives, EMS needs to be able to get in.’

Another challenge revolved around communications. All cell phone service in the Greater Boston area crashed, but luckily there were 270 phones in the area with wireless priority service (WPS), which provides priority where there is a saturation issue. ‘269 people were able to make phone calls. One failed and that was mine, for reasons they haven’t been able to figure out. Portable radios worked, and because this was a pre-planned event we had a good system in place. First responders were all talking to each other, and we were all patched to the multi-agency coordination centre.

One issue was that all responders had assumed they were doing a 12-hour shift, so 24 hours into the incident the units were shutting down. ‘We got lucky because Motorola is a great provider and they brought down a truckload of batteries that they just happened to have reasonably close.’

Cell phone coverage was restored three hours into the event, but eight hours into the event the cell phones in the unified command centre were running out of battery. ‘So we have to plan for that.’

As a result of the initial chaos Kurt Schwartz admitted that it took a while to remember that there were 7,000 runners that still needed assistance, and who were disconnected and unable to get back into the city where their belongings, cell phones, car keys, and families, were. ‘We had some good plans in place but we were slow to get those stood up. We had shelter plans in the transportation plans.’

With 1200 National Guard soldiers deployed in Boston, next day the city looked like a war zone – and the public welcomed it. It was then – when the city was in a state of lockdown, with terrorists on the loose – that the US President announced he was coming to town. ‘Great for the city but a huge, huge imposition on public safety. We tried to manage a Presidential visit whilst we had terrorists on the loose.’

The hunt for the terrorists

Three days after the bombings the FBI released photos of the terrorists. What was unforeseen was that even though the terrorists were members of the Boston community, no member of the public called to provide their names. An unintended consequence of the photos was that the terrorists decided to go out with a bang. They had more booms, and they went out and assassinated Officer Sean Collier of the MIT Police Department. They car-jacked a car that lead to a shoot out in Watertown where one of them died. A number of explosive devices were detonated, leading to an 18-hour manhunt where mutual aid in law enforcement ‘got out of control’. ‘We had a good tactical plan to lock down 20 blocks of Watertown and do house-to-house searches, but we didn’t have effective command on the ground to manage the deployment. Much of it was self-deployment and by early the next morning we had a staging area of thousands of police officers. One of our big challenges was how to manage something like this.’

In terms of communications with the public, social media was heavily used for public safety. The downside was that it is difficult to communicate with the public in 140 characters or less. ‘We used Wireless Emergency Alerts as well, which are 90 characters or less.’

Management of the media was a real problem, however, as by Tuesday morning 1500 reporters had descended. An effective joint information centre up and running was never achieved, hampered by what Kurt called egos between agencies.

He finished explaining what he called the ‘infamous sheltering place order or request’ that was made on the Friday.

At 05:00 Kurt was informed that there was a 50/50 chance the terrorists were contained in the area of Watertown – 30 minutes before the whole transit system would begin bringing a million people to work. The discussion was whether to shut down the transit system and the result was yes, it should be done as well as request the public in Watertown and the seven surrounding communities to shelter in place. As the Governor’s primary representative, and emergency management director, it was Kurt’s call. ‘I decided I’d better call the Governor, and I got into a call with him and the Mayor, where there was a bit of disagreement.’

The Mayor did not want to give into the terrorists, but the Governor accepted Kurt’s recommendation. ‘So that’s what we did at 05.30 in the morning, we asked everybody to shelter in place.’ The result resembled a ghost town by 10.00am. ‘People stayed in. Why? For one, they were scared out of their minds. And two, they were all watching live television. Everybody was watching that. I think even if we hadn’t done that, nobody would have gone out there. They would have stayed home.’

This article will appear in the August 2014 issue of Fire & Rescue magazine.

  • Operation Florian

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