Boston Marathon a case study in lessons learned following last year's bombing tragedy

April 21, 2014
Tighter security and attention to intelligence gathering strengthens prepardedness for storied event

Things were different at the Boston Marathon this year. Meb Keflezighi became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983 and the second oldest runner to ever take the crown.  And unlike past races where it was a virtually open venue for both spectators and participants alike, strict physical security measures and a robust police presence made for long security lines, barricaded race routes, random searches, bans on backpacks and a zero tolerance for rogue runners who used to be part of the Marathon’s charm – remember Rosie Ruiz? The Marathon also accommodated more than 9,000 additional runners who failed to cross the finish line in 2013 because of the horrific terrorist bombing at the finish line of last April’s Marathon.

This year’s race also figured to be a lot different for Bonnie Michelman, the Director of Police, Security and Outside Services at Mass General Hospital. The devastating attack put Michelman and her entire facility on the frontline in 2013, as Mass General was the designated primary hospital for the race. Her facility wound up treating close to 300 casualties as a result of the bomb attacks.

“The preparations for last year’s event were prudent and appropriate for both the city and my facility. No one could have ever anticipated the unforeseeable nature and horror of this event. You can never plan for every contingency, for every event, and this was by far a startling example of that,” said Michelman, who pointed out that the situation was made even more difficult due to the longitudinal nature of the event.

“This was an extremely disruptive disaster for many organizations, including mine. It wasn’t a four or five hour disaster – it was a multi-day disaster. We went into to Tuesday still gathering evidence, looking for the suspects, trying to reunite families, trying to identify comatose patients; and then on Thursday we had to ramp up for a Presidential visit,” she continued. “So we had a huge emergency preparedness response to those dignitary visits. Then Friday, we had an unprecedented city lockdown that created all sorts of issues for the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I have 8,500 employees here at Mass General that takes public transportation to work, which was completely shut down.”

Michelman has been a long-time key player in the region’s disaster preparedness efforts. The city of Boston regularly conducts disaster and emergency preparedness exercises throughout the year, with a major training event each May. There are also numerous table-top exercises conducted among the public-private partners, MEMA and FEMA.

“The endless drills and preparedness training took what was an extremely bad event to a level that was manageable in many aspects. The fact that we had 281 people who were severely injured and they all survived, showcased the fact that this city was extremely well prepared,” Michelman added. “The response and result was a tribute to all involved – from police and fire to our EMS and medical teams that were at the race, plus the Boston Athletic Association that coordinated the race, down to our hospitals. Everyone was unbelievable in the level of response.”   

Michelman’s comments certainly seem to reflect the report released last week by the Department of Homeland Security titled “Boston One Year Later: DHS’s Lessons Learned,”  detailing three topics which were a focus of attention in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. The report discussed the “importance of partnerships,” the “need for effective and reliable communications,” and the need to further boost anti-radicalization efforts.

Massachusetts has been the recipient of more than $1 billion from 22 DHS grant programs since 2002, including $370 million for the Boston urban area. DHS grants issued to local law enforcement helped prepare for a quick response to the bombing and identification of the suspects. According to the report, “DHS grants, training and workshops as well as drills and exercises throughout the Northeast region, and specifically in Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, built preparedness capabilities to enhance responses to complex, catastrophic attacks. Participants credited these investments for the coordinated and effective response to the bombings by law enforcement, medical, and other public safety personnel.”

Learning from past mistakes and creating workable solutions has been a couple of the key elements Chuck Brooks thinks sets Boston and the surrounding area apart when it comes to assessing its emergency management needs and implementing strategic plans that work. Brooks, Vice President, Client Executive for DHS at Xerox said the most significant development has been the federal, sate, and local first responder communities recognizing past shortfalls in national emergencies and closely examining successes and failures from Boston, especially in the areas of planning, coordination and inter-operable communications.

“One outcome of reviewing the incident discovered that the pre-positioning of medical first responders for the marathon greatly helped in the triage efforts for victims on the scene. In the past as a matter of EMS (emergency medical services) protocols, medical first responders waited for law enforcement to clear arrival before they responded. The pre-staged medical services on the scene may become more standardized for security planning at future public events,” said Brooks.

He added that another big development has seen federal, state and local communities have become even more engaged in learning how to improve working in “relationship preparedness” to be able to better respond and be more resilient in a future emergency. Brooks also cited the just released report commissioned by then DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, noting “that funds were used to “equip and train tactical and specialized response teams specifically in in IED (improvised Explosive Device) detection, prevention, response, and recovery, including SWAT teams and Explosive Ordinance Disposal canine detection teams among other law enforcement units.”

Knowing how to scramble through the federal funding maze and asking the right questions is a crucial aspect of properly ramping up emergency preparedness planning. Brooks stressed that   DHS, and particularly FEMA, have been active in promoting the availability for training.

“From the defense draw-down overseas, a great deal of equipment is being made available to state and local public safety professionals. In most states the governor operates a homeland security committee to evaluate and prioritize needs in various state municipalities. There is a lot of paperwork involved in grant making applications, but and DHS officials are accessible and willing to help,” Brooks pointed out. “My recommendation for state and local officials is to also look to private firms that specialize in securing grants under the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI), and DHS’s National Protection and Programs Directorates’ Federal Protective Service (FPS). Each program has their own requirements, processes and timing.”

While most experts praised the preparation and the actions of Boston’s first responders and healthcare facilities in the aftermath of last year’s Marathon bombings, the most glaring weakness proved to be the lack of shared intelligence. Reports from ABC News immediately after the bombing said U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) National Targeting Center “re-vetted” all flights that departed earlier in the day from Boston, New York, and Newark airports to identify potential suspects.

When a review of DHS’s “name-matching capabilities” was completed, it discovered a misspelling of “Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” the older suspect of the two accused Boston bombers. This mistake apparently allowed him to return unnoticed to the United States after a trip to Russia, despite previous alerts from Russian intelligence. DHS has now improved its ability to detect variations of names derived from a wide range of languages.

It was also reported that Boston Police Chief Ed Davis said he was not notified about Tsarnaev before the attacks despite previous FBI investigations of Tsarnaev, but now DHS has improved its system of sharing information with local officials about potential threats.

“Intelligence sharing has been also highlighted as an area of focus for improvement.  There was a revelation that law enforcement  had been warned about the threat of religious extremist Tamerlan Tsarnaev and should have been alerted. The problem is that it is difficult and involves many resources to track and continually monitor every potential threat, especially that of the Lone Wolf,” said Brooks. “We are a nation of soft targets and openness. New technologies such as data analytics, license plate reading, and facial recognition cameras can be employed for intelligence and forensic purposes but there is always an issue to consider regarding the balance of security with freedom and privacy.”

Perhaps no one is more seasoned at understanding the challenges of large venue special events than William Rathburn, who served as the Los Angeles Police Department’s Planning Coordinator for the 1984 Olympic Games when he was LAPD’s Deputy Chief; then as the Director of Security for the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 – which at the time was the largest Olympic security undertaking in the Games’ history, with budget of $100 million and staff of 17,224 security personnel. Rathburn also was Chief of Police for the City of Dallas, the seventh largest police department in the nation.

Rathburn admitted that protecting Olympic venues may have been a bit easier than open events like a Marathon for the simple reason that defined security perimeters could be established and protected. Putting in a secured screening process and vetting the credentials of everyone associated with an Olympics provided safeguards his colleagues in Boston did not enjoy.

That being said, Rathburn firmly believed that a breakdown in the intelligence gathering process contributed greatly to the Boston tragedy.

“Intelligence is the one thing that is important in any event. Intelligence is the key element in your pre-planning and during the event. It takes on even more importance in an open venue event like the Marathon. It is impossible to provide security for a 26-mile course. If you harden portions of it – the most vulnerable areas -- you can either discourage them or move them further out. That magnifies the importance of solid intelligence,” said Rathburn.

Rathburn added that protocols have changed over the years with a greater focus on inter-agency communication than ever before. “I grew up in a professional environment where you had an inter-agency coordination center during a major event and that was a first responder’s main point of contact between agencies. We didn’t really see a need for direct communication from officer to officer unless it was task force operation or something similar.

“I think, to some extent, when you try to provide everyone immediate communication, it can lead to a slowdown in the communication process because so many people are trying to communicate.  Unfortunately, that may have happened during the Boston bombing incident. Having immediate communication is a great thing until you overload the system or fail to have a designate point of contact,” Rathburn surmised. “In my opinion it was not the fact the backpacks were allowed into the Marathon venue that caused the bombing. It was a failure to assess credible information that potential threats were imminent.”

Despite all the planning and cooperative partnerships among agencies in the Boston area, even Michelman admitted the process could have been refined when it came to intelligence and communications in previous year. She said everyone learned a painful lesson.

“From the perspective of public-private partnerships and synergies, we in Boston have been in a very different place compared to other cities around the country. We have worked very hard in making relationships between public, private and government agencies -- and the intelligence gathering process -- better. We learned a lot from the Democratic National Convention several years ago, when we set up a Multi-Agency Command Center (the MAC) that had representatives from every public agency, and also from large private organizations like mine,” said Michelman.

“There has been a lot of talk resulting from last year’s horrific event surrounding command and control and unity of command. There is no secret that law enforcement said there was no one person in charge. And maybe that’s okay in some events because there just couldn’t be, but that didn’t lessen the scrutiny around that issue. We have all worked diligently to rectify any shortcomings in that area,” she concluded.

.Secured Cities Note:

Both Chuck Brooks and Bonnie Michaelman will be featured speakers at the 2014 Secured Cities Conference in Baltimore, November 4-6. For more information on the program and how to register, please go to

About the Author

Steve Lasky | Editorial Director, Editor-in-Chief/Security Technology Executive

Steve Lasky is a 34-year veteran of the security industry and an award-winning journalist. He is the editorial director of the Endeavor Business Media Security Group, which includes the magazine's Security Technology Executive, Security Business, and Locksmith Ledger International, and the top-rated website He is also the host of the SecurityDNA podcast series.Steve can be reached at [email protected]