Commentary

Security plan 'significantly enhanced'

Centralization at the heart of new blueprint for keeping Boston Marathon safe

Updated: April 16, 2014, 4:41 PM ET
By Jack McCluskey | Special to ESPNBoston.com

The security plan for the 2014 Boston Marathon, quite possibly the most heavily scrutinized race in history, has been "significantly enhanced" in the year since the bombings that scarred the finish in 2013.

While much of the public's focus is understandably on the changes people will see -- 3,500 police officers, including National Guard members, along the route; more security cameras; and barriers serving as checkpoints for crowds -- some of the most important changes have been made behind the scenes.

"The planning process has been completely different. The comprehensive plan is significantly enhanced," said Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. "Terrible things happened last year, but what you saw was a very effective, efficient response. So we've built on that, we've enhanced it. We're putting a lot more resources on prevention."

[+] EnlargeBoston Marathon finish line
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesThere will be more police officers along the marathon route this year, but perhaps a bigger security change took place in the planning stage.

Because of the bombings at the finish line on Boylston Street that killed three and injured more than 260, the timeline for preparations was drastically altered.

"We held our first public safety meeting for this year's marathon last August, with the [Boston Athletic Association], MEMA, and the eight cities and towns," Schwartz said.

In years past, those meetings typically began in January.

There's also been an increased focus on interagency cooperation.

"It's really a multiagency approach to the whole marathon in terms of getting together our federal partners, our state partners and our local partners, and all working on the same team," Wellesley deputy chief of police F. Jack Pilecki said. "It's clearly a lot more time devoted to planning for the marathon -- it's a big increase. There's a lot more people involved. There's a lot more meetings. There's a lot more coordination. It's a bigger commitment."

Because the race has been run 117 times before, each city and town along the route has a wealth of experience to draw on.

"We do it every year," Boston police commissioner William B. Evans said. "Since 9/11, obviously we've picked up some of our [resources] as far as manpower and bomb assets, but [in 2013] it was the usual plan. We do it all the time."

Prior to 2014, each municipality would draw up its own distinct plan for security.

"And then the state and the BAA has brought together all the stakeholders in the past, maybe 10-15 times for a series of meetings over the last couple of months," Schwartz said. "This year we began in August with strategy sessions, including the eight cities and towns and key state and federal agencies. And then we began the planning process in September with the formation of a number of planning working groups."

Schwartz said that approach mirrors those used for very large national public safety events -- things such as the Democratic and Republican national conventions and the Super Bowl.

"The result of that is where in past years you'd have eight cities and towns with their own plans, this year we have a comprehensive plan that ties all eight cities and towns together," Schwartz said. "We have a command center that all of the eight cities and towns are tied to, which will have about 250 people and 60 agencies in it. There have been literally hundreds of meetings involving hundreds and hundreds of public safety people."

And for the first time, all eight cities and towns along the route -- Hopkinton, Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Wellesley, Newton, Brookline and Boston -- will run a dedicated local emergency operations center.

Wellesley, for instance, had always run its marathon operations through the town's emergency communications center in the police headquarters -- the same switchboard that runs typical emergency services such as 911 calls. Pilecki said that the town increased staffing in the emergency communications center in the past, but didn't create a separate incident command center.

That will change this year.

"Just given the logistics of the race this year, with more runners and an anticipated increase of spectators and more officers, we felt it was needed to coordinate the event," Pilecki said.

Where in past years you'd have eight cities and towns with their own plans, this year we have a comprehensive plan that ties all eight cities and towns together. ... There have been literally hundreds of meetings involving hundreds and hundreds of public safety people.

-- Kurt Schwartz, director of the MEMA

In addition to the increased police presence, Evans said there will be more cameras deployed along the course in 2014. Boston police have also been working on recognizing potential threats.

"We've done a lot of training with our officers on bomb recognition, the characteristics of someone who might carry a bomb," he said. "We'll also obviously have more officers out in uniform but a lot more undercovers who are gonna be working and be mixed in with the crowd. We're also gonna have barriers where people are gonna have to walk through and not necessarily be searched but at least we're gonna have eyes on everyone who's walking in Kenmore Square, on Boylston Street.

"We want eyes on everybody -- that doesn't mean we're gonna search them, but if someone looks out of place, we're gonna question them."

And while the largest crowds tend to be in Boston, where the race ends, Schwartz said the planning process has focused on the entire 26.2-mile course.

"We're deploying many more resources than we have in the past," he said. "One of the things that we asked ourselves last year is, 'What if those bombs, instead of going off on Boylston Street in Boston' -- where there were a lot of resources -- 'what if that had happened somewhere else along the 26.2 miles? What if it was a little further west?' The further west you go, the numbers of resources drops off. So this year we're ensuring that we have all of the resources we need for all 26.2 miles.

"We need to ensure that from Hopkinton all the way to Boston, we have all of the resources we need to prevent a hostile or criminal or terrorist act from occurring, and we have all of the resources to immediately respond and deal with any type of significant event, mass casualty resources, law enforcement resources, communication resources. A whole array of public safety resources that are public safety related."

The upgrades to the security plan and the increases in resources deployed, from manpower to materials, means this year's marathon will be much more expensive than in previous years.

"Well, it is certainly significantly more costly this year than it has been in the past. By a significant factor, but the cost has not driven the plan," Schwartz said. "There has been a commitment at all levels of government -- local, state and federal -- for us to do what the public safety professionals deem necessary, regardless of cost. It's just too important for a lot of reasons."

While the BAA is involved with security discussions, executive director Tom Grilk is quick to say the race organizer defers to public safety personnel on these issues.

"Our job is to support public safety officials as much as we can," Grilk said. "And I know, from everything that they have said, that they are doing everything that they can to have the right balance between security and having people feel safe on the one hand and on the other hand having it be a day of joy and celebration, as it always has been. And I think they'll do a very good job of that."

"We all agreed that a primary goal was to preserve the traditional character of the Boston Marathon, and to make sure our public safety plan allows for and complements a fun, festive day," Schwartz said. "I think we have achieved that. We've put a lot of security measures in place that either the public will not see, or if they do see, are not going to impact their experience.

"Yes we'll have more uniformed police officers out there, but if the media is right and we have a million spectators along 26.2 miles, no one is going to pay a lot of attention to the fact we've got 3,500 police officers amongst a million."

Evans ran his 18th Boston in 2013, finishing in just more than 3:30. His wife and son were waiting for him at the finish line.

Asked if he'd be worried about his family being at the finish line again in 2014, Evans said no. He's confident in the plan.

"We've done a lot of training. We're well prepared," he said. "We're one of the best, if not the best, police agency in the country. I have confidence in my troops. It's tragic that someone would stoop to what these individuals did, a vicious, premeditated attack that took three vibrant lives and [who] later [allegedly took the life of] a police officer.

"I think we're all gonna be motivated to make sure we're on our game and lock down this route the best we can. I have the utmost confidence not only in the Boston police but in everyone."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.

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