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

Learning Lessons

10 Takeaways from the response to the Boston Marathon Bombing


What happened in Boston in 2013 can happen anywhere. The following are 10 takeaways extrapolated from analyses of the public safety response to the Boston Marathon bombing.

    1. While crises by their very nature are unpredictable, first responders should plan, rehearse scenarios, conduct exercises, and provide leadership training for personnel. Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said this involves bringing together local, regional, state, and federal representatives. “It’s not enough to just have a good plan,” he said. “You have to exercise the plan.”
    2. “Fixed” or planned events can be effective platforms for practicing incident management, even without an emergency. Events like a football game or county fair can stand in for more serious events. Tabletop exercises can also provide experience and insight.
    3. Authorities with jurisdiction, including law enforcement, fire, emergency medical personnel, hospitals, and both appointed and elected officials should establish ongoing personal familiarity with each other. This could take the form of regular meetings or breakfasts or participation in exercises that allow for personal connections and cooperation. Having each other’s cell phone numbers is a small but crucial step.
    4. Second- or even third-in-command officials should be prepared to step up in a crisis to free senior command to focus on strategic decisions. No matter how hands-on a senior commander is, he or she must be prepared to cede operational decisions to less senior personnel. “Senior leaders have to prepare the second echelon of leaders to step forward to take responsibility for running those operations,” said Arnold M. Howitt of Harvard University, coauthor of a report analyzing the response to the bombing.
    5. In an ongoing crisis, senior command should also not be “unduly exposed” to the enormous flow of raw information, “lest their attention be diverted from strategic issues and problems,” as an analysis of the bombing by Harvard put it. Rumors, innuendo, and unverified reports—often rampant during an incident—should be vetted as much as possible before being brought to the attention of senior command.
    6. Policies and procedures about the use of social media and channels for providing information to local reporters should be established before a crises strikes, and a joint information center should be set up during an incident. Be aware that social media “is not just a notification process, but it’s a dialogue you enter into with people and you have to be prepared to answer their questions,” said former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis. Nor, he says, is the use of social media an excuse to avoid briefing the press regularly. The task of running a press conference may best be relegated to elected officials who are briefed by first responders.
    7. In an extended event, senior management should be aware that fatigue and stress can impact personnel, even when they themselves insist on staying on the job. After more than 48 hours on duty, certain personnel should be relieved for eight hours for rest before they return to duty. "At the end of five days there were people who were literally fainting from overwork,” Davis said. “We can work for 24 or 36 hours. That happens frequently.” But when personnel work nonstop for 48 to 72 hours, it’s time to relieve people and rely on partners, he said. Or as one official put it, “Send half the people home and order a lot of pizza.”
    8. Normal communication methods like cell phones and portable radios may be inoperable when systems are overloaded. In a prolonged event, batteries can run out. Preparation can include alternative communication systems and having extra batteries close by. While Boston’s first responders had a reliable radio system, “we were not effectively prepared for the loss of cell phones,” Schwartz said. “We had not spent time thinking about how important cell phones were.”
    9. Self-deployment by police, fire, or other emergency personnel from outlying communities may be helpful to supplement local responses, but protocols should be established to coordinate those who race to the scene. Chains of command must be established and maintained; self-deployers should know to seek out those in charge. This issue and a lack of weapons discipline when attempting to apprehend the remaining suspect in Watertown were key areas in which the Boston response has been criticized.
    10. All preparation should consider “worst-case scenarios,” including mass casualties. No one can plan for every contingency, and incident command system training does not necessarily teach leadership “outside the box,” Schwartz said—but that's exactly what some scenarios may require. 

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