Security Lessons Learned – Part 1, Boston Marathon Bombings

Acts of terrorism continue to affect communities worldwide. As the public tries to retain a semblance of everyday life by attending outdoor events, emergency planners must adapt to new intelligence and learn from past attacks. A review of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings identifies the event security plans’ strengths and shortcomings. Other event planners and public safety officials can use this review and recommendations to plan for large public gatherings within their jurisdictions.

The Boston Marathon typically takes place each spring on Patriot’s Day. The Boston Marathon is unique as the 26.2-mile course is run in a straight line and travels through eight separate cities and towns. The race starts in Hopkinton then moves through Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, and Brookline, before finishing in Boston. In comparison, many other marathons are run entirely in a single town or city. The marathon’s route dramatically increases the complexity of safety and security for race organizers and public safety agencies.

The 117th running of the race was on 15 April 2013. There were 27,000 registered runners and approximately 500,000 spectators. The race began at 9:00 a.m. with several waves of runners. By the afternoon, all the elite runners had finished, but thousands of spectators were still lining the course cheering on the remaining runners. At 2:49 p.m., the first homemade bomb exploded near the finish line, followed by a second bomb approximately 13 seconds later. The blasts injured 264 spectators and killed three.

Security Strengths

The Boston Marathon planning team does a great job each year coordinating among numerous response agencies to conduct planning for the event. This showed in the immediate response that took place in the aftermath of the bombings. To facilitate this coordination, a safety committee is set up each winter and begins meeting in January. This committee includes representatives from all agencies involved in the event at the local, state, and federal levels. At these meetings, agency representatives work together to update their marathon day plans and procedures using lessons learned from previous years, after-action reviews, and current guidance from intelligence agencies regarding threat assessments.

In addition to these planning meetings, agency leaders participate in a tabletop exercise to improve and test aspects of the plan. The marathon response agencies also work together throughout the year on other events such as the 4th of July, parades, and full-scale public safety training exercises. This intimate familiarity between officials results in a cohesive and robust working relationship among all parties.

Large gatherings pose challenges for emergency management and law enforcement officials – secure and prevent threats while attendees relax and enjoy the event.

On the day of the event, the organizers set up and staffed a Multi-Agency Coordination Center (MACC), which acted as the hub for health and safety operations along the racecourse. Having a single coordination center was necessary due to how many jurisdictions the race passed through. Representatives from over 80 agencies present at the center provided situational awareness of events along the route and effectively coordinated security, safety, and medical response activities. Agencies that worked together to support the security and safety operations needed for the event included:

  • Massachusetts State Police
  • Local police from all eight towns along the route
  • Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA)
  • Transit Police
  • Boston Regional Intelligence Center
  • Boston University Police
  • Local fire from all eight towns along the route
  • Local ambulance companies providing Emergency Medical Services (EMS) support, including Boston EMS
  • Representatives from local hospitals
  • The Boston Athletic Association
  • The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA)
  • The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH)
  • The Massachusetts National Guard (MANG)
  • The American Red Cross (ARC)
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Security Weaknesses & Gaps

The Boston Marathon planners have over 100 years of experience organizing the race. Their experience shows in the detailed and thorough security plans put in place for the event each spring. However, even with all the security expertise and due diligence, there was a security weakness present that the terrorist could identify and target.

The weakness they identified was the large crowds who were present along the race route. These crowds were part of the atmosphere, so organizers could not remove them while maintaining the event’s allure. To mitigate this, the planners placed law enforcement officials along the route and among the spectators. However, there was no policy in place regarding bags, packages, and the free flow of pedestrian traffic in and out of the spectating areas.

To further complicate security issues, a Boston Red Sox game is played on Patriot’s Day each year, which coincides with the marathon. It is a tradition following the game for spectators to walk down the street to the racecourse and join the cheering crowds. This influx of people added security concerns for law enforcement officials, especially those intoxicated from the baseball game.

While the Boston Marathon Security policy was comprehensive, several areas needed improvement. For example, there were too many coordination and operations centers activated. Although the event planners set up the MACC as the central communications hub, each agency also used its own operations center to oversee operations. The event had too many coordination and operation centers active without a correctly identified hierarchy in place.

In addition, though many National Guard service members were present to assist during the race, they acted in more of a crowd control function with little show of force and negligible prevention value. Once the bombings happened, there was no plan to arm them, even though officials often paired them with law enforcement personnel. The marathon team neglected to utilize the National Guard to its full capacity, which resulted in specially trained soldiers essentially acting as crossing guards.

The runners’ bags also became a security issue as race officials did not screen them before the race. During many large endurance events, organizers place athletes’ personal items in secured bags labeled with their race numbers. These bags are then transported to the finish line for the athletes to pick up after completing the race. Two items many put in these bags are a cell phone and identification card. During the incident, these bags were secured by law enforcement then checked for explosives by Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) teams. However, organizers were not able to return the bags to the runners until the next day. The lack of identification, funds of any kind, and communication added stress on the runners and their families, who were undoubtedly awaiting news of their loved ones.

Lastly, organizers did not have the means in place to notify spectators in real time as the attacks occurred to facilitate proper evacuation and ensure no misunderstanding of information. Federal agencies were not correctly and thoroughly sharing intelligence information with local officials. Congress identified this as a problem linked to the Boston Marathon bombings in the Congressional Report titled Road to Boston: Counterterrorism Challenges and Lessons from the Marathon Bombings.

Lessons Learned & Recommended Security Policy for Large Public Gatherings

In the months and years following the events at the 2013 Boston Marathon’s finish line, the responding agencies learned many lessons. Although many of the changes recommended in after-action reviews and official reports focus on medical and law enforcement response, there are a few that pertain to security to prevent an attack. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency highlighted that their focus has shifted to prioritizing prevention and protection. Since 2013, the number of plainclothes law enforcement officers trained in suspicious behavior detection has dramatically increased. To help facilitate the observation of event attendees, spectators may now be required to pass through “choke” points where these trained professionals can observe them. Supplementing physical security are additional cameras along the race route to monitor the crowds for anything suspicious.

Large public gatherings pose a complicated challenge for emergency management and law enforcement officials. They need to balance security and prevention with the public’s desire to relax and enjoy the event. There have been several gaps in the security plans and policies used for large public gatherings in the past. By analyzing past events, these gaps can be identified, and solutions created.

In addition to the items in the Boston Marathon security policies, it would be prudent to add some additional preparedness and prevention measures to increase event security. Event planners and emergency personnel can apply these security policy recommendations to public gatherings of all types:

  • Do not schedule multiple major events on the same day – for example, the Red Sox game and the Boston Marathon – due to the influx of spectators. This results in rowdy crowds and adds unnecessary complications to the incident. Having two large events going on simultaneously in such proximity stresses city and state resources. It would be better to host the events on consecutive days.
  • Athletes’ bags and personal belongings need to be considered as part of the security plan. Runners need to be quickly reunited with their identification cards, communication devices, and monetary funds. By acquiring these items, they can secure lodging if required, procure food and clothing items, communicate with loved ones, and leave the area in a timely manner once approved to do by law enforcement officials.
  • EOD should screen all runners’ bags as they are loaded into secured buses. Once cleared, the bags need to be kept under guard until they are distributed at the finish line. This practice serves two purposes. First, officials now know these bags are safe and not a threat. Second, if an incident occurs, the bags can be moved under guard to a secondary location until the runners can retrieve them. Although this method requires increased human resources upfront, it would allow a more streamlined collection process. Additionally, it enables the runners to become self-sufficient and more quickly exit the immediate area, thus reducing the strain on local responders and assistance organizations.
  • Limit the bags, such as backpacks and purses, that spectators can carry along the course. Organizers should implement rules such as only allowing clear bags along the route. These measures are already in place at many venues worldwide.
  • Public address systems must be part of event plans, and equipment should be placed throughout the course or venue. Preplanned emergency messages should be included in the event planning, and officials need to have the ability to record additional messages as required in real-time.
  • National Guard soldiers and Airmen acting as law enforcement should be armed in the same way as their law enforcement counterparts. Although there is a hesitancy to arm the National Guard due to public perception, a lack of doing so limits their ability to impose a security presence.
  • Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to continue improving their information sharing among themselves and their state and local counterparts. Local officials need to be aware of any potential threats within their jurisdictions as they can add valuable community input to the case and assist with investigations.
  • One of the largest sources of prevention can be the public themselves. An aware populous can identify suspicious behavior and alert law enforcement. At the moment of an attack, alert bystanders could also step in and prevent the violence. Public safety professionals still need to redouble their efforts to prevent attacks before an event and to mitigate threats before the public gains knowledge of them.

The attack on the Boston Marathon highlighted the effectiveness of law enforcement and emergency response organizations within the United States. By studying the event, officials can identify opportunities for improvement in planning and tactics. The goal going forward should be to continually improve processes and educate the public on ways to increase their resilience and awareness. It is the responsibility of professionals in these fields to ensure both citizens and response organizations do not become complacent.

Daniel Rector

Daniel Rector is an emergency management professional with over 15 years of experience in homeland security and emergency management operations. He is a military veteran with 12 years of active-duty experience. He served as a damage control petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard and survey team chief on a National Guard Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team. He served as a contractor for military and private sector clients designing exercises and conducting training. He has extensive experience conducting threat identification, hazard analysis, training program development, and exercise design/evaluation. He is a graduate of training programs from the Defense Nuclear Weapons School, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the U.S. Army’s Chemical/Biological Weapons Center, and the Idaho National Laboratory. He completed the FEMA Homeland Security Exercise & Evaluation Program course and the Continuity of Operations Planning course and is enrolled in the FEMA Master Exercise Practitioner Program. He is a Certified Emergency Manager, licensed hazardous materials technician, confined space rescue technician I/II, and emergency medical technician. His awards for excellence include being the only National Guard soldier ever named the Distinguished Honor Graduate while simultaneously being nominated by his peers for the Leadership Award at the CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear) Advanced Leaders Course.



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