Rave Mobile Safety recently hosted a webinar – Campus Crisis Communication: Three Boston Campuses Share Their Experience of the Marathon Bombing, Lockdown & Aftermath – featuring emergency managers from three Boston-area colleges who were leading the response to the Boston Marathon bombing events that took place over that long week in May 2013. At Boston College, the University of Massachusetts Boston campus, and Suffolk University, each institution had its unique challenges.
For example, the marathon runs right past the main Boston College campus in Chestnut Hill but BC is not in the immediate area of the blast; BC had to contend with the shutdown of the race as thousands of runners were stopped near the campus. Suffolk, on the hand, is in the downtown area, a few blocks from the location and had a completely different set of logistic issues. UMass Boston is located close to the Kennedy Library, and needed to focus on its proximity to that event, now widely regarded to have been unrelated to the bombings, but happening concurrently. The Monday event occurred on a holiday, so emergency managers in many cases had to deploy to campuses and Emergency Operations Center (EOC) activations amid much confusion and anxiety as the reality that a terrorist attack was in progress began to sink in over the course of a long afternoon. A very unprecedented week ensued.
If you missed the webinar and have even a mild interest in emergency management, you must watch the replay.
The discussion, moderated by Dr. Gary Margolis of Margolis Healy Associates, was riveting, and the panelists provided a very "real world" viewpoint on the situation. Attendee questions during the webinar showed that higher education emergency managers were listening keenly and evaluating their own preparedness in light of the discussion.
A few points stuck out to me. First and foremost, my respect for the hard work and overall preparedness of our schools has only deepened after learning some of the details. Many attendees asked whether the schools had drilled for the specific situation. BC in particular had been liaised with city officials around the Marathon emergency plans, but in addition, BC had a plan in place to handle the possibility that students would need to be fed during a long "shelter in place" event. So while the event itself was unanticipated, in many cases the particulars of the response had been well considered.
All panelists pointed out that social media played a key role during this event, given its national press exposure. Parents expressed gratitude at their ability to monitor the updates from the institutions during the lockdown for example. John DeSilva pointed out that on Monday, Suffolk had not yet integrated their Facebook and Twitter updates via their Rave Alert system; on Tuesday, that integration was performed in short order, and as with the other schools, became a mission-critical communications medium during the lockdown events later that week. Attendees asked many questions around social media preparedness and communications plans.
Other questions centered around information flow between federal, state and local authorities, as well as among area universities, within university system offices (e.g., as UMass managed significant events at both Boston and Dartmouth campuses), and with regard to the public media.
The lesson seems to be: We have all witnessed post-911 response coordination in action, a new era where public and private institutions, and responders across a wide range of jurisdictions provided coordinated responses and collaboration with amazing sophistication. While we must all agree there are lessons to learn from these events, across the board the response appears to have made the best of a terrible situation.
The panelists concluded that in the aftermath of dramatic events like the Boston bombings, emergency managers will open a window of attention where change can occur, and all university emergency managers need to find the opportunities to advance their safety agenda while awareness is high.