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Harvard report praises response to Marathon bombings

A fast, effective emergency response to the Boston Marathon bombings last April was the product of years of security planning for large public events, forging close cooperation between public safety agencies, a Harvard University report has found.

Based on interviews with numerous leading law enforcement and public safety officials, the report by four Harvard researchers concluded that Boston and the surrounding area was unusually well prepared for the attacks, which killed three people and injured more than 260.

“Boston Strong was not a chance result,” the report states. “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.”


The report analyzed response to the bombings in hope that lessons learned in Boston can be applied elsewhere. The authors also make a series of recommendations.

The 50-page report chronicles the response to the bombings, from the immediate aftermath to the capture of alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Officials are not identified by name, allowing them to speak frankly and shed light on critical events and decisions.

Researchers praised the leadership shown during the crisis and the speed of the medical response. But they noted there was room for improvement in training police officers to control weapons fire and in maintaining regular communication with the public.

The tone for the week was set in the hours after the bombings, when emergency officials quickly set up a command center at the Westin Copley Place Hotel, the report notes.

They immediately began formulating a strategy, said Herman B. Leonard, codirector of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Crisis Leadership and one of the report’s authors.

Amid terrible chaos, the coordinated, organized approach was the result of years of careful planning for large public events such as the Democratic Convention in 2004, the first presidential nominating convention since the Sept. 11 attacks, and the annual July 4 celebration on the Esplanade in Boston, the report found.


“From the very beginning, the senior people on the scene or arriving at the scene felt the need to find one another,” Leonard said. “They realized the situation needed them to come together. That instinct is so important, and it was on display throughout the week.”

But the report found that response suffered when organizational lines broke down, notably during the shootout with the bombing suspects in Watertown and again during the capture of Tsarnaev.

Police officers “operating as individuals, rather than in disciplined units” created dangerous situations that “threatened both responders and bystanders,” researchers found.

“They should have been more self-organizing, from a tactical perspective,” Leonard said.

News reports have painted scenes of chaos at times in Watertown, with officers firing at least 200 shots, many of which hit people’s homes.

Richard Donahue, a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority police officer, is believed to have been hit by friendly fire, although the Middlesex district attorney’s office has yet to release a long-awaited report on the events of that night.

Study author Christine M. Cole noted that the purpose of the report was not to figure out what happened at the bombing scene or in Watertown.

“Our job is to figure out what are the lessons that are generalizable so we can all continue to learn from each other,” said Cole, executive director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.


The report recommends that law enforcement agencies develop procedures to prevent officers from self-deploying to emergency scenes and suggests that improved discipline is needed to control the firing of weapons.

“How do we get people thinking that more is not better?” Cole asked.

“What we’re hoping for is that there are ways to practice and train so that when everyone shows up they’re thinking that they’re part of a team, where there is a structure, and they’re not independent actors.”

The report also notes there was no plan to relieve tired officers. By Friday evening, many of those overseeing the search had been awake for 36 hours or more. The report recommends that agencies rotate personnel regularly during extended events to prevent extreme fatigue.

“We’re hoping that leaders will say ‘OK, we gotta keep half the people in reserve because we don’t know how long this is going to go,” Cole said.

The report notes that in the middle of the chaotic week following the Marathon, President Obama’s visit to Boston created “a massive logistical challenge” that prompted one senior law enforcement official to say, “The city may have needed this event, but law enforcement didn’t.”

The report is scheduled to be released Thursday. The state’s emergency management agency declined to comment Wednesday, saying officials had not read the report. Representatives of the Boston Police Department could not be reached.

In addition to praising law enforcement efforts, the report commended the medical response, noting that the scene was cleared of victims with serious injuries within 22 minutes.


“Everyone who left the scene alive is alive today,” Leonard said.

Among the medical personnel near the finish line were a number of people with medical experience in war zones who had been trained to address traumatic blast injuries, the report said.

“Some responders were carrying tourniquets, while others were improvised at the scene,” the report stated. “Many lives were reportedly saved by the aggressive and immediate application of tourniquets.”

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.