Boston Is One of the Best Prepared U.S. Cities to Handle a Crisis

Henry Grabar, The Atlantic Cities
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Henry Grabar, The Atlantic Cities
Aug. 22, 2013, 7:02 a.m.

NEW YORK — Wit­nesses re­peatedly de­scribed the scene Monday at the fin­ish line of the Bo­ston Mara­thon, where two bomb blasts ripped through a crowd of spec­tat­ors, as un­ima­gin­able. Se­cur­ity ex­perts called Fri­day’s city­wide “shel­ter-in-place” or­der un­pre­ced­en­ted, and on­look­ers could only com­pare the siege in Wa­ter­town, where sol­diers, SWAT teams, heli­copters and ar­mored Hum­vees cor­doned off a large swath of the neigh­bor­hood, to a movie.

But emer­gency man­age­ment per­son­nel in the Bo­ston re­gion had not only been ima­gin­ing such a com­plex scen­ario, they had been re­hears­ing it.

Over the past two years, area hos­pit­als had sent teams of doc­tors and nurses to city­wide train­ing ex­er­cises and run in­tern­al drills for mass cas­u­alty in­cid­ents like bombs, plane crashes, and fires. Vivid, city­wide dis­aster sim­u­la­tions – con­duc­ted in 2011 and 2012 – put hun­dreds of of­fi­cials through hy­po­thet­ic­al 24-hour crisis situ­ations. Bo­ston is one of four U.S. cit­ies whose all-haz­ards plan has been ac­cred­ited by EMAP, the na­tion­al emer­gency plan­ning eval­u­ation pro­gram.

“Even loc­al busi­nesses these days have re­sponse plans in place,” says Rick Nel­son, a vet­er­an of the Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter and a seni­or as­so­ci­ate at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies.

So when two pres­sure-cook­er bombs ex­ploded on Monday af­ter­noon, Bo­ston’s emer­gency op­er­a­tions cen­ters knew what to do. Emer­gency med­ic­al per­son­nel af­fixed tour­ni­quets – Bo­ston’s first re­spon­ders all carry these bat­tle­field dress­ings, though many am­bu­lances and hos­pit­als na­tion­ally do not – to blood­ied limbs. The most ser­i­ous cas­u­al­ties were dis­trib­uted among area hos­pit­als, a tech­nique known to op­tim­ize crit­ic­al care dur­ing dis­aster events. Bo­ston Mara­thon med­ic­al tents set up for fa­tigued run­ners were trans­formed with­in minutes in­to trauma cen­ters. Po­lice of­ficers took up po­s­i­tions to keep spec­tat­ors off the course and turned back run­ners ap­proach­ing the fin­ish line.

As the med­ic­al re­sponse un­rolled, a par­al­lel series of pre­vent­at­ive meas­ures were put in­to ac­tion. Ser­vice on Bo­ston’s Green Line, which has a sta­tion at Co­pley Square near the scene of the at­tacks, was sus­pen­ded between Ken­more and Park Street. Se­cur­ity checks were in­stalled at loc­al trans­it hubs. The FAA tem­por­ar­ily groun­ded all flights at Lo­gan In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port.

The scene on Boyl­ston Street was an ad­mir­able dis­play of bravery, skill and calm by first re­spon­ders and vo­lun­teers. But less re­marked, and equally re­mark­able, was the value of the city’s foresight. Few U.S. cit­ies could have been bet­ter pre­pared for the events of this week.

“Everything that you saw hap­pen with­in seconds of the ex­plo­sion,” says James Baker, the pres­id­ent of se­cur­ity con­sultancy Cytel Group, “was all be­cause someone thought they should be pre­pared for that.” Baker would know. In the past 24 months, he has helped Bo­ston run two massive, 24-hour worst-case scen­ario sim­u­la­tions that bore no small re­semb­lance to the situ­ation un­fold­ing this af­ter­noon in Wa­ter­town.

•       •       •       •       •

Over the past dec­ade, the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity has funneled bil­lions of dol­lars to­wards the pro­tec­tion of U.S. cit­ies. Bo­ston is one of the DHS’s “Tier 1” U.S. metro areas — in DHS’s view, one of the coun­try’s ten most likely tar­gets for ter­ror­ism. The Urb­an Areas Se­cur­ity Ini­ti­at­ive (UASI), the largest part of the Home­land Se­cur­ity Grant Pro­gram, dis­trib­utes half a bil­lion dol­lars an­nu­ally to 31 U.S. met­ros, and sent $11 mil­lion to Bo­ston in the 2012 fisc­al year.

The Metro Bo­ston Home­land Se­cur­ity Re­gion (MBH­SR) — nine cit­ies in­clud­ing Bo­ston — dir­ects that money in­to an ar­ray of loc­al coun­terter­ror­ism pro­grams. In the past few years, the MBH­SR has up­graded over 5,000 port­able ra­di­os for first re­spon­ders and in­stalled a com­mu­nic­a­tion sys­tem in­side the tun­nels of the Bo­ston T.

Part of that money must go to­wards live drills, so over the past couple years, Bo­ston has con­duc­ted two city­wide dis­aster sim­u­la­tions with Cytel Group’s Urb­an Shield, us­ing the pre­par­a­tion and after-ac­tion re­ports from the first tri­al (in May 2011) to im­prove the city’s pre­pared­ness in the second, in Novem­ber 2012. (The city also hos­ted an emer­gency man­age­ment sum­mit last Au­gust.)

U.S. cit­ies have been do­ing dis­aster drills for dec­ades, and some ex­er­cises — such as De­troit’s World War II black-out drills or Port­land’s 1955 “Op­er­a­tion Green­light”  — have been of some mag­nitude. But in the last dec­ade, the trend in dis­aster drills has moved from the purely loc­al ex­er­cise to the ver­tic­ally in­teg­rated sim­u­la­tion that co­ordin­ates a re­ponse across the dif­fer­ent levels of gov­ern­ment. “What is dif­fer­ent,” Nel­son says, “is the range and depth of mis­sions they’re re­spond­ing to.”

Urb­an Shield, which Baker star­ted in 2007, is one of sev­er­al drill pro­grams that have sprung up over the last dec­ade in re­sponse to DHS grants for thor­ough emer­gency pre­pared­ness train­ing. In 2010, it re­ceived UASI’s hon­or­able men­tion for best over­all pro­gram.

In Bo­ston, Urb­an Shield was suf­fi­ciently dis­rupt­ive and ex­pans­ive that May­or Thomas Men­ino’s felt ob­liged to ask res­id­ents to re­main calm:

“Urb­an Shield: Bo­ston will run for a 24-hour peri­od. As a res­ult res­id­ents in the area may hear sim­u­lated gun­fire, ob­serve of­ficers re­spond­ing to sim­u­lated emer­gen­cies, or see activ­ity in the Bo­ston Har­bor. Each scen­ario will be run mul­tiple times, and or­gan­izers urge res­id­ents not to be alarmed.”

The drills, which in­cluded host­age situ­ations, HazMat in­cid­ents and a movie theat­er shoot­ing, brought to­geth­er emer­gency of­fi­cials from the city, state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, as well as from the Bo­ston Po­lice, SWAT teams, the Fire De­part­ment, EMS, loc­al hos­pit­als, the Mas­sachu­setts Bay Trans­port­a­tion Au­thor­ity, the Coast Guard. All in all, there were over 600 par­ti­cipants in the Novem­ber drill, from over fifty dif­fer­ent de­part­ments and agen­cies.

“What the Urb­an Shield pro­gram does is test it all at the same time – bomb squads work­ing, swat teams work­ing, fire, HazMat, search and res­cue, com­mand cen­ters ac­tiv­ated, all your ra­dio sys­tems, hos­pit­als ac­tiv­ated – every­one’s kind of work­ing to­geth­er,” says Baker, who worked closely with the city to ex­ecute the sim­u­la­tion. “That’s where you start to find your gaps – who can’t speak to whom on the ra­dio. You identi­fy the real prob­lems when you get every­one to­geth­er.”

The drills are in­ten­ded to be strik­ingly life­like. Urb­an Shield has worked with Stra­tegic Op­er­a­tions, a Hol­ly­wood ef­fects com­pany that also helps pre­pare army med­ics for the bat­tle­field. (Their dis­aster scen­ario staff, Baker says, in­clude an am­putee.) With a gen­er­ous help­ing of moulage, their drills aim to force of­fi­cials to con­front both the lo­gist­ic­al and at­mo­spher­ic chal­lenges of a dis­aster.

“The lead­er­ship is out­stand­ing,” Baker says, re­fer­ring to Bo­ston. “I have found that they are pro­act­ive and for­ward think­ing – they in­ves­ted a lot of time and en­ergy in get­ting ready for something that they nev­er thought would hap­pen.”

Speak­ing of the Urb­an Shield pro­gram in a video re­leased in Septem­ber, Daniel Lin­s­key, su­per­in­tend­ent-in-chief of the Bo­ston Po­lice De­part­ment, soun­ded oddly pres­ci­ent. “You have to train for things that may be out of the or­din­ary,” he said, “be­cause you can’t wait for them to hap­pen to be ready.”

•       •       •       •       •

Na­tion­wide, the hier­archy of emer­gency man­age­ment can be stag­ger­ingly com­plic­ated, and the vary­ing power struc­tures with­in U.S. states — think of how L.A. County con­tains 88 cit­ies, while New York City con­tains five counties — make it dif­fi­cult to gen­er­al­ize about who calls the shots.

For ex­ample: Bo­ston has an Emer­gency Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter run out the city’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Man­age­ment. Mas­sachu­setts has a State Emer­gency Op­er­a­tions Cen­ter, run out of the Mas­sachu­setts Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency. The MBH­SR (which runs the Bo­ston Re­gion­al In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter) is a fed­er­al jur­is­dic­tion that con­tains nine cit­ies.

What began as the Cold War-era Of­fice of Civil De­fense has long since evolved in­to al­pha­bet soup, which poses two re­lated prob­lems for dis­aster plan­ners: first, how do all these agen­cies com­mu­nic­ate when something goes wrong, and second, and more im­port­antly, how does the DHS be­gin to reg­u­late and stand­ard­ize city re­sponses, mak­ing it easi­er for the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to lock up with loc­al jur­is­dic­tions dur­ing crises?

Since 9/11 and Hur­ricane Kat­rina, ex­perts say, col­lab­or­a­tion and com­mu­nic­a­tion between agen­cies and jur­is­dic­tions has been one DHS’s highest pri­or­it­ies. “Gov­ern­ment agen­cies are bet­ter at talk­ing to each oth­er, co­ordin­at­ing, co­oper­at­ing,” says Stevan Weine, a psy­chi­atry pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Illinois at Chica­go who stud­ies coun­terter­ror­ism and re­si­li­ence. “They’re bet­ter at part­ner­ing with oth­er en­tit­ies, loc­al com­munit­ies, the busi­ness com­munity.”

Though every city has an all-haz­ard plan by one name or an­oth­er, it can be dif­fi­cult to pre­dict how vari­ous au­thor­it­ies will in­ter­act in a time of crisis. “Co­ordin­a­tion is key,” Nel­son says. Bo­ston’s MBH­SR, like many re­gion­al DHS jur­is­dic­tions, is work­ing to im­ple­ment the Na­tion­al In­cid­ent Man­age­ment Pro­gram (NIMS), a na­tion­al frame­work for dis­aster re­port­ing and re­sponse.

“When you talk about dis­asters, it’s all about part­ner­ships,” says Ken Kondo, a pro­gram spe­cial­ist at the Los Angeles County Of­fice of Emer­gency Man­age­ment. Train­ing ex­er­cises are in­dis­pens­able. Last month, Kondo says, L.A. County per­formed an ex­er­cise in re­sponse to an ima­gined 7.8-mag­nitude earth­quake, work­ing out hy­po­thet­ic­als with the Na­tion­al Guard, the Red Cross and dozens of city and county de­part­ments in between.

Not every ef­fort at in­teg­ra­tion across de­part­ments has gone so smoothly. In 2003, DHS began to de­vel­op a net­work of “fu­sion cen­ters,” cross-agency in­tel­li­gence out­lets de­signed to as­sist law en­force­ment, pub­lic safety, emer­gency re­sponse, and oth­er re­gion­al au­thor­it­ies in “pre­vent­ing, pro­tect­ing against, and re­spond­ing to crime and ter­ror­ism.” The pro­gram has had its grow­ing pains: a 2012 Sen­ate in­vest­ig­a­tion found that fu­sion cen­ters mostly gathered “ir­rel­ev­ant, use­less or in­ap­pro­pri­ate in­tel­li­gence,” and of­ten spent money frivol­ously.

The Bo­ston Re­gion­al In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter (BRIC), one of 77 U.S. fu­sion cen­ters, was not avail­able for com­ment this week. But Mike Sena, the Pres­id­ent of the Na­tion­al Fu­sion Cen­ter As­so­ci­ation, who de­fen­ded the pro­gram after the Sen­ate re­port, said the BRIC was de­signed to op­er­ate in ex­actly the sort of inter-agency crisis situ­ation oc­cur­ring in Bo­ston “This is what fu­sion cen­ters were built for,” Sena told the Wall Street Journ­al.

The DHS has also strived to in­sti­tute a sys­tem of best prac­tices across cit­ies. Ac­cord­ing to Cytel’s James Baker, the im­petus for this is ob­vi­ous: “If we’re do­ing it one way, and you’re do­ing it an­oth­er way, we should fig­ure out which way is bet­ter.”

But giv­en the vari­ations in the power struc­ture, not to men­tion the geo­graph­ic and struc­tur­al dif­fer­ences between cit­ies, a stand­ard mu­ni­cip­al op­er­at­ing pro­ced­ure is, for now, bey­ond reach. “Every city has its unique re­quire­ments,” Nel­son says. Ad­di­tion­ally, re­source al­loc­a­tion var­ies widely. (New York City re­ceives nearly one-third of UASI fund­ing; many of the coun­try’s pop­u­lous met­ros do not re­ceive any at all.)

FEMA’s “Com­pre­hens­ive Pre­pared­ness Guide 101” [PDF], re­leased in 2010, tent­at­ively po­s­i­tions it­self as a text­book for emer­gency op­er­a­tions plans — while ac­know­ledging the crit­ic­al dif­fer­ences between cit­ies, and the vir­tues of bot­tom-up dis­aster plan­ning (my it­al­ics): “This Guide re­cog­nizes that many jur­is­dic­tions across the coun­try have already de­veloped EOPs that ad­dress many emer­gency man­age­ment op­er­a­tions. There­fore, CPG 101 es­tab­lishes no im­me­di­ate re­quire­ments, but sug­gests that the next it­er­a­tion of all EOPs fol­low this guid­ance.”

Above, a “func­tion­al” emer­gency op­er­a­tions plan format, which FEMA es­tim­ates is the most com­monly used EOP. Cour­tesy FEMA “Com­pre­hens­ive Pre­pared­ness Guide 101.”

The Emer­gency Man­age­ment Ac­cred­it­a­tion Pro­gram (EMAP) fur­ther en­cour­ages a con­ver­gence of loc­al and state plan­ning strategies. Es­tab­lished in 2003 un­der the guid­ance of DHS and FEMA, EMAP is the coun­try’s first ac­cred­it­a­tion pro­gram for all-haz­ards plans — the first com­par­at­ive body that holds all mu­ni­cip­al, state, and uni­versity emer­gency plans to a com­mon, re­spect­ive stand­ard. In Novem­ber, un­der the lead­er­ship of Rene Field­ing, dir­ect­or of the May­or’s Of­fice of Emer­gency Man­age­ment, Bo­ston be­came one of only four cit­ies na­tion­wide to re­ceive EMAP ac­cred­it­a­tion.

DHS-fun­ded pro­grams like Urb­an Shield also help spread best prac­tices between cit­ies — as they move from re­gion to re­gion, they share les­sons learned. (Two of the EMAP-ac­cred­ited cit­ies, Bo­ston and Aus­tin, have also held Urb­an Shield events.) Each Urb­an Shield sim­u­la­tion also draws dozens of pro­fes­sion­als from oth­er, smal­ler cit­ies, who come to watch and learn.

•       •       •       •       •

Mu­ni­cip­al de­part­ments also study each oth­er’s tac­tics. While a city like Bo­ston might have a hard time learn­ing from New York City — the world’s most soph­ist­ic­ated po­lice force is ac­tu­ally too good to be help­ful (they have over a dozen for­eign op­er­at­ives, for ex­ample, and in some coun­tries rival­ing the CIA for in­tel­li­gence) — it can draw les­sons from else­where.

For U.S. cit­ies, Is­rael is a par­tic­u­lar area of fo­cus. In Oc­to­ber, of­fi­cials from ten U.S. po­lice de­part­ments (though not Bo­ston) traveled to Is­rael to study coun­terter­ror­ism, se­cur­ity and re­si­li­ence. And Is­rael is a case study for more than just po­lice: Mass Gen­er­al Hos­pit­al in Bo­ston, which re­ceived dozens of vic­tims from the Mara­thon bomb­ings, had pre­vi­ously con­sul­ted Is­raeli doc­tors to “re­vamp their dis­aster-re­sponse plan­ning.”

Re­si­li­ence, in par­tic­u­lar, is one area in which the Is­rael­is ex­cel — and one that U.S. au­thor­it­ies have been eager to im­port to U.S. dis­aster areas.

“When you think about polit­ic­al vi­ol­ence, there’s ‘How do we stop it?’, and if we can’t stop it, ‘How do we re­spond?’” says Vic­tor As­al, dir­ect­or of the Home­land Se­cur­ity Cer­ti­fic­ate con­cen­tra­tion at the Rock­e­feller Col­lege of Pub­lic Af­fairs and Policy. “One of the com­pon­ents is re­si­li­ence – how do you get back to the way things were. And that’s dif­fer­ent than find­ing out who did it.”

“In Jer­u­s­alem, when a ter­ror­ist at­tack hap­pens,” he adds, “if you walk by six or 12 hours later, you wouldn’t know it. They clean it up and they get people go­ing.”

The At­lantic’s Jef­frey Gold­berg, writ­ing in Bloomberg View on Tues­day, also cited Is­raeli re­si­li­ence. A dec­ade ago, ar­riv­ing at a Jer­u­s­alem cafe the day after a ter­ror­ist at­tack there killed sev­en people, he found the scene nearly in­dis­tin­guish­able from any oth­er day. “There is no sat­is­fact­ory solu­tion to the prob­lem of mass an­onym­ous vi­ol­ence,” he writes. “As a res­ult, re­si­li­ence be­comes the para­mount re­sponse. Keep­ing your wits about you as in­di­vidu­als, as a gov­ern­ment and as a cul­ture is what counts.”

Wheth­er today’s Bo­ston lock­down, promp­ted by the man­hunt for Mara­thon bomb­ing sus­pect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, con­sti­tutes a ne­ces­sary se­cur­ity tac­tic or a fail­ure of re­si­li­ence is already the sub­ject of con­sid­er­able de­bate. “A shel­ter-in-place of this mag­nitude is un­heard of,” says Nel­son, who could not think of a par­al­lel oc­cur­ance in re­cent U.S. his­tory. It might be the first time since the Watts Ri­ots of 1965 that so large an urb­an area has been placed on lock­down.

Re­prin­ted with per­mis­sion from the At­lantic Cit­ies. The ori­gin­al story can be found here.

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