Officials Kept Close Watch Over 2019 Boston Marathon

FBI officials said they were not aware of any specific threat to this year's marathon. But in the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency bunker on Monday morning, officials were prepared.

by Shira Schoenberg, The Republican, Springfield, Mass. / April 16, 2019
Fans cheer on the third wave of runners at the start of the 123rd Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15, 2019, in Hopkinton, Mass. AP Photo/Stew Milne

(TNS) — As the waves of runners left Hopkinton to run the 2019 Boston Marathon, a roomful of public safety officials watched their computers, monitored video screens and radios, and talked to one another as a rolling list of incidents appeared on a screen on a wall.

A runner fell and fractured an arm. A drone was detected. An unattended package was found and cleared.

On marathon day, as 30,000 runners and countless spectators take to the streets, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency runs a "unified coordination center" in MEMA's underground bunker in Framingham.

The goal, said MEMA spokesman Christopher Besse, is to bring together local, state and federal public safety officials in one place so they can coordinate their responses to whatever the day brings — from weather to terrorism.

"On any given day, you don't know what you'll need to use," Besse said.

The 2019 Marathon was held on April 15 — the first time the marathon has been held on the anniversary of the 2013 bombing, which killed three people near the marathon finish line and injured nearly 300.

FBI officials said they are not aware of any specific threat to this year's marathon. But in the MEMA bunker Monday morning, officials were prepared.

Nearly 250 people from 70 agencies were working at the bunker, which opened at 6 a.m. and planned to stay operational until the last runners were concentrated in Boston, likely at 5 or 6 p.m.

In each room of the bunker, one screen runs television coverage of the marathon while another screen shows the marathon route and other statistics being monitored by the officials, such as numbers of medical patients or incidents reported to law enforcement.

In the main room, police and fire officials from all eight communities the marathon course traverses receive information from officers in the field. This will allow them to coordinate as needed if an incident happens in one of their communities. The state police, National Guard, Boston Athletic Association and MEMA are also present.

One room is used for intelligence and investigation, where the FBI, state police and other law enforcement officials monitor threats and talk to tactical teams in the field.

Monday morning, the team flagged a truck with few markings, only to find that it was delivering cones along the route.

Another room hosts ambulance companies, the Department of Public Health, the Red Cross and other emergency medical officials, so any medical response is coordinated among the different ambulance services and agencies.

A separate room hosts support for the bomb squad, hazardous materials teams and other tactical teams who are called out for things like monitoring suspicious packages.

The coordination center has been used for years, but it scaled up after the 2013 bombing. Until that year, there were generally 80 to 100 people using the bunker on marathon day, compared to 250 today. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies now have a presence. Planning starts six months before the race.

"Every year, there are always tweaks," Besse said.

For example, after bad weather last year — and with rain threatening this year — each community opened a shelter in the morning rather than waiting until circumstances warranted it. Organizers sent 60 extra buses to medical tents, which can be used for transportation, to provide shelter from the rain, or as warming or cooling stations, depending on the temperature.

While the bunker is underground, with an entrance guarded by the police, one job was happening in a specially constructed tent. Because the cafeteria was being used to coordinate the emergency medical response, a catering company set up shop outside to grill hamburgers and hot dogs for lunch.
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