Homeland Security and Public Safety

Security Lessons from Boston, One Year Later

The Boston Marathon bombing and response provided lessons to other cities hosting major events.

Massachusetts Army National Guard at the 2011 Boston Marathon
Cpl. Howard Vosburg, of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, scans the crowd for possible threats at the 2011 Boston Marathon. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jerry Saslav/Massachusetts National Guard Public Affairs)

Dr. Alexander Garza, associate dean at St. Louis University’s College of Public Health and Social Justice, will be watching news from the Boston Marathon on Monday a little differently than most Missourians.

Last year, on the day that two suspected terrorists shocked Boston and the world with bombs near the race’s finish line, Garza had just resigned as one of the top anti-terrorism officials with the Department of Homeland Security to take the SLU job.

Watching the aftermath of the bombing on television that day, the former chief medical officer for Homeland Security noticed something very important. He saw the widespread use of improvised and medical tourniquets as a testament to the constant learning and adaptation that Americans have undergone since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the capital and in New York City.

As a young emergency medical technician trainee in the mid-1980s, Garza had been taught that tourniquets like the ones he saw being applied in Boston would damage tissue and potentially cause more harm than good. But a decade’s experience fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, proved that medical dogma wrong. The Bronze Star winner saw soldiers saved by tourniquets as an Army Reserve special investigator for Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, that branch’s current chief of staff, during the Iraq War.

Garza said use of the old-fashioned tourniquet helped save lives in Boston, where three died and more than 260 were injured by two bombs allegedly set off by two purportedly terrorist-radicalized brothers named Tzarnaev.

“The tourniquet now is back in the mainstream,” Garza said, and “so you saw that translating to civilians at the Boston Marathon.”

Now, Garza and others said, some lessons from Boston have been absorbed by other big cities that host iconic events, including St. Louis.

Police Chief Sam Dotson said St. Louis took a hard look at its security strategy for special events after the Boston bombing, including last year’s Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure through downtown.

Dotson said the city did several things differently in that event, including running background checks on race volunteers, dispersing undercover officers in the crowd, deploying more officers with video cameras and placing K-9 units at the starting and finish lines.

“It’s very difficult for any city to cover the entire route, but we did our best,” Dotson said.

Dotson said that the city continues to develop its strategy to deal with security at big events. During the World Series at Busch Stadium last year, he said, city officials monitored air quality and established a system where law enforcement officials could monitor local hospitals and health statistics in real time.

And in a nod to the learn-and-adapt strategies necessary in the terrorism age, the chief added: “I’m sure Boston did a great job before the bombing. I’m sure they do an even better job now.”

Civilians and runners flooding the streets of Boston and its neighboring boroughs Monday will enter a different setting than they saw last year. Some measures — including a crackdown on backpacks, more plainclothes officers roaming the crowd, bomb-detonation squads from other cities, armed National Guard troops, tighter entrance security in areas where large numbers of spectators congregate — will be easily noticed. Other measures might be less so. One most likely will involve cellphones, one security expert said.

“I am guessing at various times you will have trouble using your cellphone” because of “jamming” measures developed in Iraq to disrupt potential bomb detonation, said Steve Bucci, a former Army Special Forces officer and Iraq War veteran who now heads the Heritage Foundation’s “Protect America” initiative. The idea, Bucci said, is to disrupt any plans to use a phone to remotely trigger a bomb.

In retrospect, Bucci said he thinks the Boston Marathon bombing “was a reawakening” of the idea “that we still have to be cautious, that we still are under the threat of terrorists.

“The war on terror is not over, because the other side has not given up yet,” he said.

Bucci said he believes corporate America and civic leaders remained tuned into the threats far more than average citizens. He got a glimpse of the difference while speaking last month to St. Louis business leaders at a cybersecurity conference in the city.

“There was a heck of a lot of interest in understanding cybersecurity and understanding how the things they are in charge of are potentially at risk, and the kind of stuff these leaders need to do” to combat it, he said. “There is a level of interest out there that they realize that, as one of the major cities of the Midwest ... they are potentially targetable, and they want to minimize the disruption to their city. I was pretty heartened by their response.”

Henry Willis, director of the RAND Corporation’s Homeland Security and Defense Center, said that the Boston bombing and response provided lessons to other cities hosting major events.

One was “the value of awareness and surveillance” both before and after the bombing, Willis said.

Tens of thousands of photographs and videos shot by average citizens or collected from the ubiquitous network of public and private video cameras that are now part of all city landscapes flooded a special Web address set up to collect them. Within minutes, videos of the suspects were widely distributed on social media. Willis said that was a vital investigative tool that authorities would not have been able to rely upon even a few years ago.

The volume of video aids that were pouring into police also created a problem. There was so much information — some of it purposely false, including a fake Twitter account tied to one of the suspects — that it overwhelmed investigators in the early hours, said Terrence Cunningham, the police chief of Wellesley, Mass. His borough will host five miles of the marathon on Monday. Cunningham was just reopening streets along the marathon’s route in his city at last year’s race when he was notified the bombs had gone off.

Cunningham, an officer of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said he deployed about two dozen of his officers to Boston, near the site of the bombing, to check out reports of more bombs along the route, all of them false.

“There was so much information, not only from the public but from the media, that was wrong, that you really had to drill it down because you didn’t want to send your resources in the wrong direction,” Cunningham said.

The lesson? Have a central clearinghouse with people trained and technology available to help filter good information from bad, he said.

One other lesson learned was what RAND’s Willis said was “the value of medical surge preparedness,” a regionally coordinated, beefed-up presence that Boston had improved through many marathons and greatly enhanced in preparation for the 2004 Democratic National Convention there. It helped authorities disperse victims to the nearest medical facilities or those most capable of handling specific injuries. That, plus the fact that Boston hospitals and medical personnel were already well-prepared for the race itself, helped mitigate the damage of the bombs, said SLU’s Garza.

“The medical response aspect to a marathon event, even without a terrorist attack, is very robust,” he said.

A four-day manhunt, in which authorities locked down great parts of the Boston area, led to a firefight in Watertown, Mass., and the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the capture of his brother, Dzhokhar. The younger brother, now 20, faces trial and a possible death sentence. Wellesley Chief Cunningham said a pre-established regional communications network that linked all police departments in dozens of jurisdictions “made all the difference in the world,” and he said he has urged that jurisdictions that call him with advice to make sure they have coordination across boundaries.

The sense of urgency and threat is different from city to city. And one big gathering is different from another, even within a city. Security officials need to constantly look at the threat and the risks, and to weigh each major public event separately, Garza said.

He said he was struck, upon moving back to St. Louis, how an abandoned box on a city street — an event that could prompt a shutdown of streets and an instant perimeter of blinking lights around an entire neighborhood in his old environs of Washington — is a routine sight. He has also been struck by the difference in noticeable police presence between St. Louis versus Washington and New York, where “there is a cop on every street corner.”

But as an example of how authorities have adapted in an age of terrorism, he said that two similarly attended baseball games in St. Louis would also elicit far different security responses. Because of its iconic stature, a World Series game — no matter where it is held — is automatically viewed as more of a national security event than a midseason sellout, and therefore will elicit more federal help and beefed-up preparation.

It’s all part of what Garza calls the “layers of security” that many Americans now take for granted, even though they may never see many of them.

Nicholas J.C. Pistor of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

©2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 

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