The Boston Bombings - Redefining Shelter in Place

On 19 April 2013, in an effort to help in the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, the Boston Police Department (BPD) issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire city. The order originally was issued for only the Watertown and Cambridge areas, but the BPD quickly expanded the order citywide – and did not set a specific timeline.

All Boston transit lines were shut down for an indefinite period of time, therefore, effectively turning the city into a ghost town. This unprecedented move highlighted the use of shelter in place as a potentially “new” tool to aid in a criminal investigation related to at-large suspects. It also demonstrated the unique challenges that come with such an order imposed on the general population – hundreds of thousands of citizens who, without warning, suddenly found themselves trapped in their homes or, in many cases, businesses or other sites.

No Longer for Weather Events Only

Most Americans who do not live in areas affected by significant weather events, such as hurricanes, became quickly familiar with the term “shelter in place” following the 9/11 attacks. The aftermath of those attacks led to an almost palpable fear that a potential chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack could occur anywhere, and without notice. Many governmental and nongovernmental organizations recommended that citizens prepare for such events by purchasing and storing an assorted variety of food items, water, medical supplies, duct tape, and other essential supplies – in quantities sufficient to allow individuals and families to remain in their homes for an extended period of time (up to a week).

That was more than ten years ago. As time has passed and the fear of such attacks has waned, however, the post-9/11 stashes have long since been used, eaten, or tossed out. The Boston bombings provide yet another and much more timely reason, though, for maintaining a state of preparedness on the home front. Even today, coping with sudden disasters of any type would nonetheless present unique challenges never before considered likely. Meeting those challenges would be an extremely difficult task facing not only those who are ordered to remain in their homes, but also those who must enforce such an order.

Unlike an impending major weather event, which often provides hours or days of advance warnings with commensurate opportunities for planning, a public safety-initiated shelter-in-place order could be issued with little or no notice. Largely for that reason, private citizens must be ready, individually and collectively, to stay in their homes, schools, or offices for an extended period. In some cases, there may be no opportunity to pick up food or supplies from businesses that must also close down in compliance with the same order.

A natural disaster also generally allows for the free flow of essential personnel such as medical professionals, whereas a criminal investigation requires public safety officials to handle the task of checking the identification of authorized personnel. Doctors and nurses, for example, must be vetted by law enforcement and, in some cases, provided with transportation to reach their facilities if they rely on public transportation or if regular vehicle traffic is not permitted.

In addition, members of the general public who require special services, such as dialysis, must also be authorized and transported by public safety personnel to receive medical treatment away from their homes. Other special needs populations who rely on the delivery of life-saving supplies such as oxygen or certain types of medications also may require public safety assistance while sheltering in place. Finally, the homeless populations in urban areas present other challenges during a shelter-in-place order, primarily because their access to food and water may no longer be available.

A New Toolkit for Criminal Investigations

The Boston shelter-in-place order, although unprecedented, was relatively short-lived, thus lessening the burden on the general population as well as on emergency responders. In addition, most Bostonians recognized that, given the nature of the manhunt and the potential danger posed by the suspects, it was safer in any case to remain indoors.

Moreover, because it was a specifically targeted and somewhat limited criminal investigation event, Boston City utilities were not affected. Water, electric power, and access to the internet remained readily available throughout the search for the bombers, and social media outlets provided an unlimited mechanism for communications and information sharing.

The new challenge, therefore, comes down principally to advance planning and preparedness for the unique requirements of similar events in the future – specifically including chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks. Fortunately, for individual citizens and businesses alike, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) website provides a wealth of information and access to many useful resources for the first responder community. The agency’s Ready Responder Toolkit includes preparedness planning templates, for example, that focus on individual and organizational preparedness.

In the same Toolkit, interestingly, FEMA cites several first responder surveys indicating a general sense that many of the organizations participating in the surveys were themselves not fully prepared for a disaster response lasting more than one or two days. Although the Boston shelter-in-place order lasted less than 24 hours, the information gathered in that brief period of time may be useful in assisting public safety and other first responder organizations in preparing for such incidents in the future. Given the success of the Boston investigation, shelter-in-place orders may become a more prevalent as well as increasingly useful law enforcement tool.

Although the Boston shelter-in-place order lasted less than 24 hours, this information may be useful in assisting public safety and other first responder organizations in preparing for these events in the future. Given the success of the Boston investigation, shelter-in-place orders may become a more prevalent law enforcement tool in the future. Adding these scenarios to new or existing preparedness plans appears to be warranted. Although the investigation was ultimately successful, the bombers also were able to achieve most of their goals. The impact of the bombing itself and the investigation that followed provide critical learning opportunities that should not be ignored by either citizens or the first responder community.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.



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