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Thursday, June 1, 2023

A 10-Year Reflection on the Boston Marathon Bombing and a Call for a National Emergency Management Strategy

Our nation is left weaker if we cannot re-create that sense of community and purpose that we felt in Boston in April 2013.

When I think back to April 15, 2013, I first see a city at its brightest. The streets are filled with millions of residents and visitors from around the world – Patriot’s Day, an early Red Sox game and the Marathon came together to create a day like no other in Boston. These are the streets I spent 36 years working on at Boston EMS, the streets where I grew up, and the area I still call home today.

The second thing I see when I think back to April 15, 2013, is a community that came together in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing in a historic way. In the words of the late Boston EMS Captain Bob “Sarge” Haley, “Everybody ran the right way that day.” EMTs, paramedics, police officers, firefighters, and civilians all saved lives together.

While nothing can replace those we lost, as a community we take solace that our preparedness saved lives. I often say: It was no accident that Boston was prepared to respond that day, it was no accident that equipment was on site. It was no accident that the patients were equally distributed across hospitals. It was no accident to see that lives were saved with tourniquets. Boston was strong because Boston was prepared.

Some of the lessons we learned from the successes in the response have been directly applied to programs on a national level. We saw that tourniquets worked – and that was part of the formation of the “Stop the Bleed” initiative. The Boston Public Health Commission on Emergency Preparedness worked with family reunification and mental health support. Their efforts were crucial successes in supporting survivors and their families. We now apply that same level of care in the wake of terrorist events in communities across the world with the organization “One World Strong.” One World Strong has helped thousands of survivors around the world, from the Pulse nightclub shooting to Las Vegas to Uvalde to Manchester, UK, to France and more. These are initiatives formed from the tragedy by survivors for survivors, with the leadership of Dave Fortier and others.

We saw phenomenal coordination of leadership across agencies, with everyone working together in their respective silos or as we call them “Cylinders of excellence.” In the years following, many people studied the leaders of the response and the level of coordination. This exploration led to the development of “Swarm Leadership” from Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, preparing hundreds of past, current and future leaders to respond as effectively as those women and men did that 10 years ago.

I’d like to offer a special thank you to the late Mayor Tom Menino and Governor Deval Patrick for their leadership before, during, and after the bombing. Mayor Menino and Governor Patrick set the tone long before the bombing in stressing the importance of preparing, practicing, and cooperating with compassion for disasters. Both leaders demonstrated the best of servant leadership and allowed their teams to function at their highest level for the greater good.

Other lessons are less easily captured in a single initiative or organization.

After the bombing, we learned the value of recognizing the impact of the trauma on first responders, families, and the community. Now more than ever, EMTs, paramedics, police officers, firefighters, healthcare workers, emergency managers, and public health workers are in need of that recognition and support. COVID-19 has left a devastating toll on the workforce we depend on in the aftermath of a crisis. Without taking care of this workforce – with adequate mental health services, workplace conditions, strong leadership, and cross-functional collaboration – we are leaving the United States exposed to catastrophic future attacks being left unanswered both in the context of lives and economic well-being.

In the response to the Marathon Bombing, we also learned how impactful rapid, accurate, and transparent communication is for a whole community response. Twitter was used to communicate crucial information to the entire city. However, today in the face of cyber-attacks, mis- and disinformation – we have lost both trust and the ability to communicate effectively. We need to remember the value of crisis communication from the Boston Marathon and institutionalize it across federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial agencies.

Unlike ever before, our local emergency managers and public health workers are dealing with overlapping crises – or poly-crises. It’s not just floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires anymore – it is the fentanyl epidemic, it is homelessness, it is immigration and terrorism. It is biosecurity and cybersecurity threats. We need to prioritize funding and building stronger public health systems, and stronger emergency management systems and work together on the LOCAL level, with support from the federal level. Local leaders need ongoing support to maintain the ability to break through the purposeful disinformation aimed at eroding trust – so that they are able to manage everything that is being put on their plate.

Lastly, the Boston Marathon response showed us the resilience of a community that stands together. Yet today, we live in a fragmented society in the wake of COVID. There is a lack of social cohesion in towns and cities across the country. How do we bring people together again? Our nation is left weaker if we cannot re-create that sense of community and purpose that we felt in Boston in April 2013. Emergency Managers are conveners – they bring people together after a disaster. How can we lean on their skillset to help bring people together before a crisis happens to build resiliency?

How can we take these lessons to get everyone running in the same direction again? A National Emergency Management Strategy.

Similar to the National Cybersecurity Strategy, a unifying National Emergency Management Strategy would align “roles, responsibilities, and resources” to bolster efforts on the local level to better prepare and respond to crises. We need a common vision for long-term capacity building so that our Emergency Managers are just as prepared to mitigate, respond, and recover from natural and human-made disasters in 30 years as they were on the day of the Boston Marathon Bombing.

This strategy could not come at a more pivotal moment. In 2020, there was a billion-dollar natural disaster every 16 days in the U.S. – causing a devastating toll on human lives and the economy. This year, our country has faced a mass shooting event nearly every day. COVID-19 has been estimated to have cost the U.S. economy $3.7 trillion. This year, we are set to continue to see record numbers of fentanyl-related overdoses. The list goes on.

Our local-level Emergency Management workforce faces daily threats that transcend both the mission of FEMA as well as the National Security Council’s priorities. This workforce urgently needs investment, collaboration, and support from the federal government. The time is now to deploy a National Strategy that recognizes their needs in order to promote national and economic security.

Reflecting on the 10-year anniversary of the Boston Bombing, there is a clear path to transform the way our nation prepares its communities for natural and human-made disasters. We should take these lessons learned to create the National Emergency Management Strategy so that when disaster strikes, we all run forward – together.


Mikayla Holzwarth, MPH, is an author on this piece. 

Richard Serino
The Honorable Richard Serino is currently a “Distinguished Visiting Fellow” at Harvard University, National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. Mr. Serino was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 8th Deputy Administrator in October 2009 and served until 2014. Prior to his appointment as Deputy Administrator, he served as Chief of Boston EMS and Assistant Director of the Boston Public Health Commission. As Chief of Boston EMS, Mr. Serino served as Incident Commander for over 35 mass casualty incidents and for all of Boston’s major planned events. During his time at FEMA, he oversaw 60 disasters from flooding in the Midwest, tornado devastation in Missouri, tsunami destruction, and numerous hurricanes. Mr. Serino was on scene at the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 as the highest-ranking official of DHS. Under Mr. Serino’s leadership, FEMA has started the following initiatives such as FEMA Corps, FEMA Stat, the FEMA Think Tank, a detailed budgetary process, and a Disaster Workforce and Workplace Transformation.

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