Why Was Boston Strong critical incident review of the Boston Marathon Bombing

A report released a year after two homemade bombs exploded along the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three, injuring dozens and traumatizing an entire city, provided first responders with concrete and actionable steps to improve emergency management plans now and in years to come.

“Why Was Boston Strong? Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombing” was co-authored by four scholars of emergency management and criminal justice at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Law School (HLS) and Business School (HBS): Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard (HKS/HBS); Christine M. Cole (HKS); Arnold M. Howitt (HKS); and Philip B. Heymann (HLS). The white paper analyzes in detail the 100 hours “of intense drama that riveted the attention of the nation” between the moment the first bomb exploded near the marathon finish line until the arrest of the lone surviving suspect more than four days later. It identifies those critical moments when planning, preparation and coordination paid off — as well as those occasions when performance left room for improvement.

Based primarily on an extensive series of interviews with command-level officials from a range of agencies and jurisdictions, the White Paper was prepared for and later refined following a conference of top public safety officials; practitioners with responsibilities for securing large-scale events; and scholars of emergency management, organizational behavior, and criminal justice. This expert dialogue, which featured participants from both the United States and abroad, took place at the Kennedy School on March 13-14, 2014.

The report found that the response to the bombing and its aftermath was driven in part by the effective interaction between senior emergency personnel and their subordinates (i.e., command relationships), as well as by collaborative interaction with their counterparts in the many public safety agencies who were involved in the initial response to the bombing and subsequent investigation for suspects (i.e., coordination relationships).

The authors outline a number of substantive recommendations for law enforcement and other disciplines and agencies charged with preparing for and responding to both large planned events and unforeseen, complex and rapidly-evolving crises. Among other recommendations, the authors urge them:

  • To quickly establish a cross-agency, senior strategic and policy-making level of engagement and secure command post — with dedicated space for strategic, tactical and logistical teams — that looks to both the big picture and a longer timeframe.
  • To provide responders and political leaders with more training and experience in the doctrine of incident command in complex circumstances through exercises and utilization of regular “fixed events” to develop skills.
  • To develop a more effective process to manage the inevitable self-deployment of responders who in response to crisis arrive as independent individuals rather than in organized units.
  • To critically review current training and practice on control of weapons fire, which may call for new paradigms.
  • To design and routinely establish a staffing schedule for all levels of personnel ensuring rotation and rest that are essential to sustained performance when critical events last for days.
  • To consider a legislative change to the HIPAA regulations regarding release of information to family members about the health status of patients critically injured in an attack, in order to provide them the best care possible and to cater to their wide range of needs.

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