By the very nature of the venue, protecting events such as the Boston Marathon are nearly impossible. The bombings at Monday’s race that killed three and injured more than 140 spectators, highlights the frustration encountered by both the private sector and law enforcement when attempting to secure such a public, open event.
The challenge is monumental: Secure an area that encompasses more than 26-miles of public roadway with no protected perimeter or focused areas of ingress or egress; along with spectators who line both sides of the street along the course and are encouraged to bring their own coolers and backpacks as they cheer on the thousands of runners.
In a little more than two months, Atlanta will be hosting one of the three biggest marathons in country, the Peachtree Road Race. Tracey Russell, Executive Director for the Atlanta Track Club, which organizes the AJC Peachtree Road Race, released the following statement regarding Monday's bombings at the Boston Marathon: “We are deeply saddened to hear the news of today's events in Boston. Safety at every Atlanta Track Club event is our top priority. As it relates to security with any large-scale event in Atlanta, we work very closely with the City's Police and Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Service units, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and additional government agencies. Our hearts go out to the entire Boston community and the victims affected by this tragedy."
Atlanta is no stranger to big events or the tragedies that sometimes accompany them. The city just hosted the NCAA’s Final Four college basketball championships earlier this month without incident; however, the memories of the Olympic Centennial Park bombings during the 1996 Olympic Games have colored preparation for large events ever since.
According to David Wardell, vice president, operations and public safety for the Central Atlanta Progress and Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, preparation for the Final Four began more than five months ago and continued right up until tip off. The City of Atlanta coordinated training exercises and collaborated with federal, state and local law enforcement for joint security and emergency preparedness drills and training. “We have been involved with DHS to train and prepare those involved from the FBI, Georgia World Congress Center security staff and Atlanta Police Department,” he says. “This had been an entire private sector/public safety effort, with coordination from police, fire, and other first responders. Everything that was done was very comprehensive. Preparation went far beyond just guns and badges.
“Because of our experience with the Olympic bombings, we are extremely cautious when it comes to open-venue events,” Wardell continues. “The public expects a high level of security and they accept it. The Final Four was second only to the Olympics in our level of security preparation.”
Pointing out the national magnitude of the event and the sheer volume of spectators the event brought to the downtown area, Wardell instituted educational symposiums for his staff in security and emergency preparedness that outlined basic response scenarios. “Bottom line, in large open events like this, is you need to understand who your partners are and what resources you have at your disposal,” Wardell says. “It is key to create a unified communications structure and command organization, and there has to be a real spirit of cooperation to make it work.”
Wardell believes the officials at the Boston Marathon did their due diligence and provided the most secure environment possible for fans and runners. “Unless you close off the entire venue, they did all they could do,” he says. “Securing a 26-mile course would be so manpower-intensive that it is just not feasible. You would have to bring in the military for such tactics. Now that is done for a Presidential move, but for an event like this, it would be overkill and much too cost-prohibitive.”
David Holley, a senior managing director for the Boston office of Kroll echoes the sentiment that events such as the Boston Marathon present huge security challenges. “Another difficulty in protecting an event like a marathon is the fact that there are no assigned seats and the spectator crowd is generally mobile,” he wrote in an article published The New York Daily News. “Moving from place to place to secure a better view, watch friends go by, or work their way down to the finish, the crowd is generally always in motion. Knapsacks and handbags are picked up and put down countless times, and frequently forgotten at the last location, making it difficult to determine whether an object has been abandoned or unintentionally left behind."
Indeed, the mess of “left behinds” after an event like a marathon is a daunting task to sift through and dispose of, he added. These things make it difficult to monitor and secure open-venue events, but it is also what makes them wonderful events to attend, he said.
Wardell agrees that having the ability to screen fans at specific ingress points is the most important difference between his Final Four and the marathon. “For the Final Four, even though we had open venues, they all had defined perimeters with access control — even if that access control was just staring at you and doing bag checks,” he says. “Fans and vendors (at the Final Four) were required to go through a gauntlet or checkpoint that allowed for screening. At the marathon, you had people standing 50-feet deep, sitting at cafes along the route. How do you prepare for that?
“There is a fine line when you talk about securing the venue and providing security for the venue,” Wardell adds. “To state that something is secure is a difficult prospect. We always have inner and outer perimeter security at big outdoor events — we have always provided solutions that were reasonable and prudent. You usually don’t take it to the level of a Presidential visit where you seal manhole covers and such; but, in the future, given the status of events, we may have to take it to that next level.”