Author(s): Stephanie Schorow. Published on May 1, 2017.

Change of Course

How Boston’s approach to emergency management and planning have adapted since the 2013 marathon bombings—and what other communities can learn from it.


On April 17, the day of the 121st Boston Marathon, an estimated one million people lined the 26.2 miles from the town of Hopkinton to downtown Boston to cheer on more than 30,000 runners. They had been told by police, event organizers, and emergency management officials to leave backpacks and over-the-shoulder bags at home. The same with coolers and suitcases. They were told not to carry anything that could hold more than a liter of liquid.

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Keeping an eye on the proceedings were an estimated 5,000 uniformed and plainclothes law enforcement officers stationed along the route. A pair of drones operated by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) provided additional eyes over the race’s starting area. Other public safety officials monitored an extensive web of closed-circuit video feeds along the course, especially in downtown Boston where the crowds were a dozen deep on sidewalks. Incident command facilities had been established in the event of an emergency. Safety officials had brainstormed potential disruptive events, terrorist and otherwise, and their agencies had rehearsed responses.

As security was readied in the days leading up to the marathon, runners loaded up on carbs and rest, hoping for a cool, cloudy race day. They didn’t get it: marathon Monday was sunny with temperatures approaching 80, and the heat was largely responsible for the roughly 2,300 runners who required medical attention.

But that was the only significant concern on a day that was buoyant and otherwise incident-free. Given the heightened tension in the country, it can be hard to imagine that so many people could joyously gather in one area without some kind of trouble. Considering the events that occurred four years earlier in Boston, it can seem almost miraculous.

On the afternoon of Monday, April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs exploded near the marathon’s crowded finish line on Boylston Street. Three people were killed and hundreds more were injured, many horribly maimed. Over the course of an unsettling week, the city struggled to make sense of the horrific act as it searched for those responsible. Why the marathon? Why Boston?

The events of that week changed how the city’s police, fire, and emergency management officials plan for and respond to emergencies, incidents of terrorism chief among them. Some of those changes are apparent, like using large city vehicles to block streets to prevent attackers from driving into crowds, such as the attack in Nice, France last July that killed 86 people, or the recent attacks in London and Stockholm that each killed four. Many other changes are behind the scenes—training and preparation, the establishment of command facilities and emergency communications strategies, and more—but no less important for ensuring safety at large public events. Since the bombings, four more marathons have been run, each involving more than a million spectators and runners. The city has held parades for its victorious professional sports teams, with tens of thousands of people lining the streets. Every July, as they have for decades, huge crowds gather on the city’s Esplanade for the annual Fourth of July concert and fireworks.

Authorities continue to apply the hard lessons learned from that day in April, and from subsequent events that have occurred across the globe.

“The changes we’ve made in our approach to planning for events are not all attributable to the Boston Marathon bombing,” Kurt Schwartz, MEMA director, told me. “They are also attributable to our analysis of and familiarity with terrorist and other types of attacks around the world since April 2013. It’s an ongoing process. We are continually reviewing world events, looking at threats and hazards, and changing and adapting our plans.”


Prevention and protection

On a recent April morning, Schwartz took a break from preparations for the 2017 Boston Marathon to talk about the lessons of 2013. In addition to directing MEMA, from 2010 to 2015 Schwartz also served as undersecretary for homeland security and emergency management in the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety.

Perhaps the most significant change is the increase in the amount of focus and resources MEMA now places on “prevention and protection,” Schwartz said—ways to protect venues and prevent attacks from ever happening. This means working with the public to discourage people from bringing certain items when they attend major public events, such as backpacks and coolers. “See something, say something” is emphasized. More video surveillance cameras are being installed in public areas.

The number of trained plainclothes officers has been significantly increased at public events. “The public may not know it, but they should expect that they are being closely watched by people who are trained to detect suspicious behavior,” Schwartz said. To access viewing areas, spectators may be funneled into narrower walkways, allowing law enforcement to more easily observe and watch, Schwartz said.

The actions of law enforcement, emergency medical personnel, hospitals, and other public safety assets in April 2013 have been analyzed in great depth by at least two significant studies: “After Action Report for the Response to the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing,” developed by MEMA and other partners, and “Why Was Boston Strong? Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombing,” coauthored by four scholars of emergency management and criminal justice at Harvard University.

Both reports gave the response high marks. “Boston was strong in large part due to its readiness for catastrophe,” the Harvard scholars concluded—a key component of the type of resiliency that allows a community to respond, withstand, adapt, and quickly recover from a shock like a terrorist attack. Codes and standards can play an important role in maintaining resiliency, including NFPA 1600®, Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity/Continuity of Operations Programs; NFPA 1616, Mass Evacuation, Sheltering, and Re-entry Programs; and NFPA 1620, Pre-Incident Planning.

But the reports also pinpoint telling weaknesses, including the lack of a joint information center that emergency officials could use to update the public. The reports also noted the lack of coordination and management of mutual aid when more than 2,500 law enforcement officers, many self deployed, converged on a community near Boston as part of the hunt for the bombing suspects.

Chief among the strengths was the trust and personal familiarity previously established among authorities with jurisdiction, allowing them to address complex incidents in ways that could not be anticipated in a written plan.

After the bombs went off, senior public safety officers quickly set up a unified command post in a nearby hotel, staffed by senior officers from various agencies. Senior commanders “instinctively and because of their preparations knew to look for each other and create a physical place where they could command and plan together and deploy their people in a coordinated way,” said Harvard study coauthor Arnold M. Howitt, adjunct lecturer in public policy and a senior advisor for the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. “They were conditioned by their experience of collaborating in all these major events…they were used to operating in a joint way.”

This was not by accident. The Boston Police Commissioner in April 2013 was Edward F. Davis, a veteran police officer whose “calm and reassuring response garnered him national praise,” according to The Boston Globe. Davis had held quarterly breakfasts with state police, emergency management officials, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and others. “We got to know each other and talk about ongoing challenges that we had,” Davis told me. “We had each other’s phone numbers. There was an amount of trust and mutual respect. We pushed it beyond the leadership to the components of the different agencies working together on sports victories and other celebrations.”

Many agencies had also participated in joint exercises, including tabletop exercises and a full-scale Urban Shield exercise, which includes Boston and eight surrounding communities. In 2012, the exercise scenario was a multifaceted terrorist attack in Boston, which included an improvised explosive device on Boylston Street. These scenarios test the emergency response capabilities of multiple agencies including police, fire, emergency medical services, hospitals, and emergency managers, Schwartz said. As Howitt pointed out, though, such training has to be practiced to be effective.

I asked Davis if Boston’s experience was applicable to other communities. “I think everything else that we’ve done to prepare for that event and to mitigate the damage that the event caused is certainly something that can be practiced by other cities and can be handled in much the same ways,” he said.

Davis noted one exception to that: Boston’s exceptional medical response resources. There are seven level-one trauma centers in Boston, including two pediatric level-one centers, most within five to 10 minutes of the bombing site on Boylston Street. The 2012 marathon had been unseasonably warm, resulting in a surge of patients with heat-related health issues. For 2013, the medical plan had enhanced to ensure that medical tents had the capabilities to handle more patients, meaning a large number of medically trained personnel were on hand. People critically injured in the bombings received essential life support services at the scene and were rapidly transported to hospitals in what was described by one paramedic as a “scoop and go.” Ambulances loaded with patients were en route to hospitals within nine minutes of the first detonation. The blasts occurred shortly before the hospitals’ afternoon shift changes, and day shift workers were kept on to essentially double the staff available to treat marathon victims. Because it was a holiday, Patriots Day, there were no elective surgeries scheduled, and hospital staffs were able to operate beyond normal capacity. Every one of the 264 victims transported to hospitals, including the 16 people with traumatic amputations, survived.

Had the bombs gone off at the starting line, 26 miles away in Hopkinton, it is likely the outcome would have been much worse. That’s why marathon organizers now deploy a mobile force of ambulances and medical teams that moves along the route as the runners progress.

Out of chaos, clarity

The passage of time can blur how much Boston authorities had to think outside the box during an intense, exhausting week in 2013. On marathon day, about the time the bombs went off, a fire broke out at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum across town; authorities first thought the events were connected. (They weren’t.) In neighboring Cambridge, Harvard’s JFK School of Government was evacuated out of fear that institutions associated with the Kennedys were being targeted.

Protocol generally dictates that the area’s transportation system should be shut down in the face of credible threats, but on the day of the bombing Schwartz and other officials opted to keep the subways and buses running to allow for the evacuation of thousands of runners and spectators. “Had we been wrong, we would have been really wrong,” Schwartz said somberly.

On the Thursday after the bombing, with no suspects publicly identified, Boston’s public safety officers faced another logistical challenge when President Obama arrived in Boston to attend an interfaith service with Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino to honor the bombing victims. Some feared the logistics of protecting the president were too overwhelming for a city on the edge. Davis disagrees. Obama’s visit “was very good for the city, despite the fact there was an enhanced threat because the bombers were not in custody,” he said. “Especially in the case of terrorism, where people are attempting to frighten us, I think it’s important for leaders to ignore that and carry on as they would. Is there an enhanced danger? Sure, but it’s still our responsibility to mourn and to help the victims.”

Events escalated throughout that day. That evening the FBI publicly released photos of two suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, brothers from Cambridge, identified through video surveillance of the marathon’s finish area. Within hours, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer was shot and killed as he sat in his marked police vehicle in Cambridge; the murder was later linked to the bombing suspects. A man whose car was hijacked by the suspects escaped and alerted police. The vehicle was identified by police in the nearby community of Watertown, and a firefight between officers and the suspects ensued on a residential street; Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed and a transit police officer was critically injured, possibly by friendly fire. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev escaped, triggering a massive manhunt.

“Clearly our tactics were poor in that particular situation,” Davis said of the gun battle in Watertown. “Police came from all over, and if you’re not thinking about tactics when that happens and there are no strong leaders, you end up with a circular ambush and that’s a dangerous thing to do.”

Early Friday morning, another decision loomed. Following a brief but heated discussion, the governor, mayor, police officials, and MEMA representatives came to an agreement: The city would be put under a shelter-in-place order. The decision wasn’t made lightly, Davis recalls. Police were investigating multiple leads and there was fear that a terrorism cell had been activated. “We weren’t sure what we had, how far this conspiracy had gone,” Davis recalled. Schwartz made the compelling argument that the area frequently sheltered in place during major winter storms. A shelter-in-place order was unusual for a manhunt, “but in New England it wasn’t that unusual for the government to say, ‘Stay home,’” Davis said.

The public stayed put, many of us glued to televised coverage of the unprecedented manhunt that focused on a 20-block area of Watertown, not far from the scene of the shootout. Friday evening, shortly after the shelter-in-place order was lifted, a Watertown resident noticed that the tarp covering a boat in his backyard was askew, and that someone appeared to be hiding inside the boat. In a dramatic finale, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev emerged from the boat, bleeding and critically wounded, the red dot of a sniper’s laser sight resting on his forehead. He was apprehended by police and placed under arrest.

Despite the media coverage, a weakness cited by the two reports was a breakdown among public officials in keeping the public informed while ensuring all public messages, including those disseminated through social media, were coordinated and validated. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, media outreach was excellent. The first press briefing was held about two hours after the explosions; three more briefings followed that day. As new developments dwindled, however, the media scrambled to fill the airwaves with its own reporting, some of it based on speculation. Photos and video clips circulated on social media. Public safety officers generally did not adequately coordinate and control messaging, Schwartz said. “We had public safety leaders doing their own tweeting,” he said. At times those officials tweeted contradictory information.

A joint information center should have been established and media briefings should have continued, Schwartz said. The entire leadership doesn’t have to participate, he said, but public information officers can say, essentially, “I don’t have anything new, but what are your questions?” Such issues will be addressed in the future, Schwartz said.

Fears of a larger terrorist cell proved unfounded; the Tsarnaev brothers were reportedly self-radicalized and angry over the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deaths of Muslims in those conflicts. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death on federal charges in 2015. He told authorities that he and his brother were also planning a bomb attack on Times Square in New York City.

Ed Davis has retired as police commissioner, and now runs his own security consulting business. It is unfortunate, he said, but the role of public safety officers is to think the unthinkable. “You need to imagine what could go wrong and do whatever you can to stop it from happening,” he said.

Massive crowd gathers in the Boston Common for the Womens March.

In Boston, events like the Womens March, which drew 175,000 in January, have occurred without incident. Photograph: Getty Images

I asked Schwartz if the marathon bombing fundamentally changed Boston. He paused for a heartbeat. “I can only say that it changed me,” he said. “And everything I see in my perception of the world and my community is very different because of it.”

I told him that I don’t especially fear being out in large crowds in Boston, but every time I see masses of people jammed together on the Esplanade for the Fourth of July concert, I shudder a little bit.

“You and me both,” he said.

STEPHANIE SCHOROW is a writer based in Boston. Top Photograph: Reuters