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After Boston Marathon bombings, coordination then chaos, report says

A Harvard study one year after the Boston Marathon bombings extols the immediate response of police, medical personnel, and bystanders but notes that the chase after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev days later became dangerously uncoordinated.

Matt Rourke/AP/File
Police officers aim their weapons in Watertown, Mass., as they hunt for the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings in this April 19, 2013, file photo. A Harvard University report released Thursday looks at the effectiveness of emergency response during the four-day saga.

The response to the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and wounded 260 a year ago was remarkably effective in the immediate aftermath but unduly chaotic during the day-long search for the suspects later that week, according to a new Harvard University report.

In the moments after two bombs exploded on April 15, 2013, emergency personnel responded with the swiftness born of years of post-9/11 emergency planning. The last wounded person was evacuated within 22 minutes.

“Every person alive when they left the scene of the bombing is still alive today,” says Herman Leonard, co-director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Crisis Leadership and a co-author of the report.

But when the suspects accused of the bombings were found on April 18, police officers “self-deployed” to the scene of the chase to help, leading to confusion that endangered not only the police themselves but also surrounding citizens.

“When numerous people from different agencies arrive in darkness with adrenaline flowing at a confusing and rapidly-evolving situation, unaccompanied by their own supervisors or others from their agency, not knowing the other officers present (or even knowing which other organizations are represented at the scene), and anxious to be helpful and involved, the result can be chaos and endangerment,” the study found.

The report looks more deeply into the powerful melding of organization and spontaneous public assistance that was quickly dubbed “Boston strong.” The authors found that preparation was essential to Boston’s first response.

“Boston Strong was not a chance result,” the report said. “It was, instead, the product of years of investment of time and hard work by people across multiple jurisdictions, levels of government, agencies, and organizations to allow command-level coordination and effective cooperation.”

Within minutes of the blasts, senior officials from the mayor’s and governor’s offices and police officials began spontaneously organizing; issuing calming statements to the public; and developing a strategy for cordoning off, investigating, and cleaning up. The public was involved, too, with homeowners along the race route assisting stranded runners and business owners helping at the scene of the attack.

The “high degree of effective coordination” among response agencies and other organizations was a “hallmark of the successful elements” of the response and a sharp contrast to the response following hurricane Katrina, the report noted.

But that spontaneous urge to help led to problems three days later when the suspects were found, culminating in a morning gunfight between a large unorganized group of officers who had surrounded the suspects.

Whether dispatched or self-deployed, most of these officers arrived individually. Once on scene, they did not appear to self-organize into working units but “instead tended to act individually” until later, when very senior commanders began to arrive on scene, the report said.

Hundreds of rounds were fired, with one suspect killed and an officer seriously wounded – perhaps by “friendly fire,” although no report has been released. Some shots penetrated nearby homes and vehicles during the gunfight.

The eagerness to help “created confusion, command challenges, crossfire situations, and other conflicts in a number of instances. In some cases – as when police officers treated blast victims at the finish line – self-deployment and out-of-policy initiative were undoubtedly to good effect; in other cases, it created dangerous situations that had to be defused.”

The problem was repeated the following day, when the suspect who escaped the gunfight, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was found. Despite Gov. Deval Patrick’s unprecedented “shelter in place” order to citizens, which froze life in the Boston metro area for most of April 19, police failed to find Mr. Tsarnaev. But minutes after the shelter-in-place order was lifted, a Watertown homeowner investigating a loose boat cover found the suspect inside.

Once again, police flooded the scene. One later characterization of the Watertown boat episode was that when the call came over the radio that there was a man in a boat on Franklin Street, the report said, “every law enforcement official in North America started heading toward that boat.”

With officers surrounding the boat, and many in the line of fire of other officers, one officer fired a shot, which was followed by a hail of bullets from the others.

In such “tactical situations definitive and authoritative command is an essential resource,” the report found. Someone needs to be “in charge.” Meanwhile, those at the scene “need to recognize who that is and to accept it or grave and unnecessary danger can be created for responders present at the scene, civilians nearby, and suspects.”

One of the big lessons is the need to limit law enforcement improvisation and self-deployment, the report said. That includes ways to quickly identify a staging area for responders while not permitting any to go beyond an established perimeter.

“In the heat of the moment of responding, the desire to be more involved in an important event may have affected the behavior of some responders, particularly during the most dramatic moments in Watertown,” the report found.

Other experts say the enormous help offered by community members shows the need to involve citizens more intimately in emergency response.  It was a homeowner, not police, who ultimately located the suspect, notes Stephen Flynn, director of the Center for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University’s Institute for Homeland Security. And in most emergencies, such as the recent mudslide in Washington State, it is local residents who are first on the scene, he notes.

“This event affirms the need for broader engagement of the community itself beyond the professionals – both in law enforcement and medical response,” Dr. Flynn says. “When it comes to better managing these kinds of risks, it is the capacity of the community – like Boston Strong – to roll with these punches that is central to driving down the appeal of terrorist attacks on US soil.”

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