Why Was Boston Strong? Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombing – a New Study from Harvard

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WWBSWhen you “preact” you take time to think clearly, process possibilities, options and contingencies and develop a plan that enables you to perform well in an emergency.

You control your own disaster preparedness. No one is more interested in protecting you and your family than you are, and more importantly, only you and your family truly understand your particular situation.

By incorporating the best tactics and strategies and then tailoring them to your needs, a customized plan will emerge to give you an upper hand in most crisis situations.

This plan is what we refer to as a Personal Preaction™ Plan. 

These fundamentals are true for businesses, organizations, associations and other groups. Planning, review, refinement and testing are all a part of a PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM.® approach. As a part of this approach, objective review and analysis after an event allows all parties to create strategies for improvement.

A new study, released today by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Crisis Leadership, does just this, and takes a look back at the Boston Marathon bombings of last year, and the aftermath of the manhunt in Watertown for alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The report, titled “Why Was Boston Strong? Lessons from the Boston Marathon Bombing,” was the result of extensive research and interviews with 25 senior-level officials. The Harvard Gazette quotes the report:

“Boston was strong in the face of a horrific terrorist bombing of an iconic city for a host of interrelated reasons,” the report finds. “A few must simply be attributed … to infusions of good luck that favored the response and reduced the consequences of the attack. Others were the result of careful planning and fully intentional action, but are nonetheless unique to the Boston setting, and would be hard to replicate elsewhere.” But most “were intentional and are replicable elsewhere. … We seek to understand both what worked best, why it worked, and what worked less effectively — all with the aim of assessing what can be done going forward in Boston and elsewhere to prepare even better for future events.”

As detailed in the report’s Executive Summary: 

Viewed as a whole, the events following the Marathon bombing posed enormous challenges.

whywasbostonstrongThe response spanned geographic boundaries, levels of government (local, state, and federal), professional disciplines, and the public and private sectors, bringing together in both well – planned and spontaneous ways organizations with widely varying operating norms, procedures, cultures, sources of authority, perspectives, and interests.

The research points strongly to the fact that the emergency response following the bombing in Boston and the events in Cambridge and Watertown at the end of the week were shaped to a substantial degree by the multi-dimensional preparedness of the region. Response organizations have undertaken detailed and careful planning for the many fixed events like the Marathon that are staged annually in the Boston area. They have seen to the development of both institutional and personal relationships among response organizations and their senior commanders, ensured the adoption of formal coordination practices, regularly held intra- and cross-organization drills and exercises, and generated experience during actual events.

Importantly, the senior commanders of these organizations seem to have internalized the “mindset” of strategic and operational coordination. The research also suggests that the major contributing factors to much of what went well – and to some of what went less well – were command and coordination structures, relationships, and processes through which responding organizations were deployed and managed. The response organizations – particularly at senior levels – demonstrated effective utilization of the spirit and core principles of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), mandated by Congress in 2002 but still a work in progress in many areas of the country. But the many highly positive dimensions of inter – organizational collaboration in the Boston response are juxtaposed with some notable difficulties in what might be termed “micro – command,” i.e., the leadership and coordination at the street level when individuals and small teams from different organizations suddenly come together and need to operate in concert. The integration of NIMS into the practices and cultures of emergency response agencies is a work in progress – very promising but still incomplete, particularly at the tactical level of operations.

Of note, the study cites:

Public Communication

• Maintaining regular and open communication with the public – through traditional and social media – should be a high priority for senior officials, even when confidential investigations are ongoing. When accurate, frequent, official communications were absent, news and social media filled the gap, sometimes with speculation and misinformation. Development of protocols for crisis communication, incorporating utilization of social media, should be part of the planning for fixed events. This should include improving practices for dispelling widely disseminated, inaccurate information or rumors.

• Systems for coordinating and communicating information to families of individuals missing or injured in a crisis need to be improved , perhaps including revision of HIPAA rules governing the release of personal information about patients receiving care during public safety emergencies.

Preparation for Future Crises

Boston Marathon Bombings Whitepaper• Robust development, practice, exercise, and application of incident management processes and skills (codified in the NIMS system) greatly enhance the ability of emergency responders to operate in complex, multi – organizational, cross – jurisdictional crises. The great value of common systems and the understanding that these produce among responders who have never previously met or worked together should not be under – estimated. They can literally be life savers for responders and others at a crisis scene.

• “Fixed” or planned events can be effective platforms for practicing incident management skills even when no emergency occurs, and they are highly useful if emergency contingencies materialize at a fixed event as happened at and after the 2013 Boston Marathon. Skills honed at such events can also prepare responders and response organizations to perform more effectively even in “no notice” emergencies that may occur at other times.

• Because coordinating multiple agencies and disciplines will be particularly difficult in “no notice” events , senior commanders should

• Themselves form a unified command structure to make decisions and implement them,

• Identify a separate staging area to which deploying individuals and organizations should report and await before undertaking field operations.

• Establish protocols for the formation of “sudden” teams composed of individuals from different organizations that may not have previously worked together.

• Community resilience should be systematically developed and celebrated. In the face of the bombing, Boston showed strength, resilience, even defiance – and these were key drivers of the overall outcomes … that is, of “Boston Strong.” These qualities are latent in many communities in the United States and elsewhere. Celebrating examples of community resilience – both local examples and from farther afield – may help to cultivate a culture of confidence and self – reliance.


The report details the challenges faced when dealing with rapid-fire communication via social channels:

(Report Page 13) Within the flow of information from social media, news media, cell phone texts and calls, there were inevitably many pieces of misinformation that added to confusion.

Several reports of additional explosives found on the street near the finish line were carried in network media bulletins and echoed (and widely re-echoed) in social media; these turned out to be erroneous interpretations of reports about ongoing EOD clearance operations, and no additional explosives were found, but the reports caused additional concern and confusion.

Reports of an explosion at the John F. Kennedy Library – five miles from the scene, in a relatively remote corner of the city – caused alarm that it might indicate that the attack was broader and ongoing. This “explosion” was eventually determined to have been a fire that resulted from an ordinary and minor electrical fault – but not before it had been described in the first press conference and labeled as “being treated as related,” adding to the burdens and concerns of the leadership group and adding uncertainty to their understanding of the events they were managing. It also led to the evacuation of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard (on the theory that perhaps “Kennedy – related” sites were being targeted).

…and how a call for participation via images became problematic due to overwhelming response:

(Report Page 17) One significant focus of the investigation was on scrutinizing the photographic evidence from the scene of the blast, and investigators requested spectators and others who had photos or videos that might contain useful intelligence to forward copies to the FBI.

The community response was overwhelming.

The area of the blast probably had the greatest saturation of photographic coverage of any place in the country at the time the bombs went off, so the likelihood of finding useful photographic evidence seemed quite high.

On the other hand, the massive volume of material that flowed in created logistical problems of finding enough trained photographic analysts to search for t he useful frames among the multitude of images received. The investigation received an astonishing flood of information and leads that had to be digested, decided about, and in some cases acted upon. Eventually, this generated crucial progress in the investigation – but it also generated a torrent of misinformation and bad leads. Thus, a major challenge in events of this kind – inevitably fraught with imperfection – is separating the modest amount of useful, accurate, actionable information from the flood of confusing, erroneous, and irrelevant observations in which the valuable leads are embedded.

Areas for Improvement in the Response to the Bombing

The report goes in to great detail in this area, and we summarize the key points below:

Strategic command issues

  • Establishing and maintaining strategic oversight or ” command” ( i.e., defining and staying in the strategic lane, and avoiding being pulled back into the tactical lane)
  • Secure, dedicated facilities for command and coordination
  • Focus and filtering of distractions
  • Mission conflicts
  • Rotation, depth, and fatigue  
  • Systems for coordinating and communicating information
  • Attending to the emotional needs of survivors and family members
  • Maintaining regular general communication with the public
  • Maintaining accuracy of public information in a media – and social media – saturated event

Tactical/local command issues

  • “Self-deployment”
  • Allegiance to mission
  • Micro – command  
  • Micro – coordination, trust, and respect
  • Discipline, fire control, and training
  • Protocols and Technology
  • Structuring field teams to take advantage of local knowledge and external resources  
  • Extraordinary powers and procedures in emergency situations 

Priority Recommendations for Improving Future Responses

  • Robust development, practice, exercise, and application of incident management
  • Use of “planned” or “fixed” events as a platform for practicing IMS and to handle emerging “no – notice” events
  • Handling emerging “no – notice” events with multiple agencies and disciplines represented
  • Conscious and ongoing development of community resilience

The report is co-authored by Christine M. Cole, executive director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at HKS; Arnold M. Howitt, executive director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at HKS and co-director of the Program On Crisis Leadership with Leonard; and Philip B. Heymann, James Barr Ames Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

Firestorm applauds the study’s Authors; it is our hope that the study experiences broad distribution, as the lessons and analysis are exceptional learning points for every community.

A copy of the report (PDF) is available at the HKS website.

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