The Boston Marathon Bombings: Lessons to Learn From

The April, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing clearly showed how video surveillance can be instrumental in capturing those responsible for terrorist bombings. It also demonstrated how the “shelter in place” tactic was successfully used to limit injuries and fatalities in the aftermath of the twin explosions. Lessons learned from the incident can be applied to future incidents on city streets, at shopping malls and in airport terminals.

When the bombs exploded, thousands of panicked marathon spectators fled into the Prudential Center across from where the shrapnel-packed pressure cookers bombs were detonated, killing three people and injuring more than 200.

Alan Snow, director of safety and security at Boston Properties, which manages the center, produced the after action report, “Prudential Center Boston Incident Management Case Study.” It shows in graphic detail the aftermath of the attack and the behavior of bystanders.

Boston’s Prudential Center is a mixed-use property consisting of three high-rise office towers, retail shopping center, underground parking garage, connecting residential buildings and hotels. It also has an extensive indoor/outdoor CCTV surveillance system and a security command center. So, too, does the Lord & Taylor store on Boylston Street. One of the department store’s surveillance cameras gave investigators clear video of two suspects leaving backpacks near the Boston Marathon finish line. Snapshots from individual cell phone cameras also provided incriminating evidence.

As CCTV cameras recorded race spectators flooding the center’s walkways and shopping center and rushing down up escalators, the incident commander determined that the danger was on the street and that the best course of action was to immediately shelter in place the thousands of people in the office towers, residential buildings and hotels, all of which are linked by a public address system.

“You must communicate with occupants in the building within 10-15 minutes,” Snow said. “If you don’t, they will start making their own decisions and they may not be the right ones. The announcements should also be made every 15-20 minutes thereafter until there is no longer a threat.”

Sheltering in place training is performed twice a year in exercises that go beyond standard fire drills. “Criminal activity is taking place on Boylston Street. Shelter in place until further notice,” is the message that’s announced. And it must be “clear, confident and authoritative,” Snow said.

During the shelter in place announcement that was made following the marathon bombings, most tenants stayed put and there are no injuries among the people who were in walkways, the shopping area and the food court, Snow said. He noted that keeping exit doors and walkways clear of obstacles is essential. “If exits are blocked, you will have a very serious situation,” he said.

Additional security personnel were scattered around the building after it re-opened to reassure workers. But it was decided that it would be overkill to search purses, briefcases and backpacks. Highly visible security patrols (dubbed security theatre by Snow) were prohibited to avoid hysteria.

Snow said training and exercises for staff and occupants pays off. “Panic spreads like fire and is just as dangerous,” he said, adding that the Prudential Center’s communications system was critical in saving lives.

“It’s the best investment I ever made,” he said.

Roman Lopez is a Homeland Security Today contributing writer with more than 40 years of experience as an aviation, aerospace and defense journalist, editor and manager. He’s a former editor-in-chief of Air Safety Week and Unmanned Systems, and theformer US managing editor of Jane’s Information Group.

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