When terrorists strike…

Expert Opinion
When terrorists strike…

Rob Noonan, the director of public safety at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, recounts his experience of managing an event in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing

For us, the marathon is such a gem of the city, it’s a really great tradition. It’s one that is attended by thousands of people every year. It is co-hosted with the RedSox Game, and there are large crowds. It was a holiday for us, we’d just finished hosting a sports and fitness event where all the runners pick up their bibs for the race. We’re really connected to that event.

At around 2.50pm that Monday, two bombs went off, right outside our front doors. Our team immediately attempted to take people away from it and shelter them. One of the organic things with being in a convention centre is bringing in that outside community, helping them, supporting them. It wasn’t too long after that we were told we couldn’t shelter them, that we had to evacuate. What was unique under the circumstances was that it was the first time we’ve evacuated the building, lock up and abandon it.

It was new to us, to have to go through the building and lock it up, shut systems down, that was different for that day. What became very important to us though, early in the process, was that we didn’t really have a sense of what was going on. Nobody knew why it happened, if there was going to be more, the security that we had applied to all our members was really important.
It was really important early in the process that we developed a communication point. And that was critical; to establish communication. A short couple of hours after the bombs went off, we were asked to reopen this venue and take in all the evidence from the crime scene for law enforcement. They needed a place to start staging and cataloguing it before it went offsite. So our team was able to open doors and turn lights on from our facility in South Boston through technology, which was very helpful to us during that day.

To give you a sense of the crime scene, it really was completely shut down. Shops were shut down, residents were evacuated, hundreds of thousands of people and everyone of them had a bag that had to be cleared. Every phone had to go through and see who it was, and it was one of those situations where early in the process. We had an event in the building here that was about to kick off. And at our other venue in South Boston, and that was really important to us to cover.

What’s not talked about a lot is what that [following] Friday was like. It was a week-long event and that Friday, when the law enforcement officials were trying to track down the suspects, it became very problematic for us, as there was so much unknown.

I say this very respectfully – as difficult as Monday was for us, it was very much something from a reactive state that we could implement procedures that we had, we could initiate a response. On Friday there was so much unknown, that it proved to be difficult because you didn’t know what you were reacting to. It was unprecedented. They actually shut down the entire city of Boston and we had to shelter a police squad.

Imagine the sheer depth of that. It was important that day for us to be able to communicate what we knew, what we didn’t know, and our clients in the building appreciated that. We were very honest and up front with them. What we could do, what was going on, and the minute things changed we would let them know. So that proved to be very important.
What lessons were learned? Communication is key. You need to establish that plan in advance, you need to balance those who need to know and those who want to know. You have to have a plan that is scalable, that can fit any type of emergency. And you have to practise it, and stress it. You have to figure out where it will break. And that proved to be critical to our success. We managed to have an all hazards approach to emergency planning. We didn’t have a plan for what would happen if two bombs went off a couple of hundred yards away. But what we did is have a plan in how we would communicate. We had a plan on how we could secure our facilities, how we could evacuate our facilities.

All those things can blend together to become an all hazards approach to how you manage emergencies.

We’ve never put our staff in a position where they’re being asked to do something they’ve never done before. And that’s going to bring down their stress. Simplify what you’re asking people to do and why you’re asking them to do it. If a group needs to observe and report then we have to be the best at it.

In Russia a few years ago, there were meteors flying through the air. I imagine they didn’t have a plan in place, but they probably do have something that they can apply to it now, just like we would.

It’s important to put things in perspective. Strong leadership matters. It’s really easy when those things happen to try and jump in and steer the ship because you think you need to. The really hard work is looking after your team