To get the obvious out of the way first, I realize I’m indulging in what has become a nearly annual exercise of self-promotion by pointing out that I once got an op-ed published about how the City of Boston and the surrounding region treats the Boston Marathon every year as a “planned disaster.” Though it really gets me nothing personally by continuing to point it out, I’ll continue to do so since I believe it is a best practice that other regions should emulate. And perhaps an example of a “Whole of Community” approach to preparedness and response that started before anyone came up with that phrase.
According to BEMS chief Richard Serino, his department considers events like the marathon and the Fourth of July celebration as “planned disasters” – safe, controlled environments that present “an opportunity to test some things you would never want to test in a real disaster.”
Although the principal goal during such events remains the safety of everyone involved, organizers have realized that these annual gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people present the perfect opportunity to evaluate new technologies, exercise disaster plans, and build vital relationships between public safety agencies and the private sector.
[You can tell the piece is a little old…as “BEMS Chief Richard Serino” has been the Deputy Administrator of FEMA since 2009…]
This year it is especially pertinent as temperatures in and around Boston are expected to soar into the eighties, resulting in a heavier than normal workload for medical personnel:
The forecast forced organizers to offer a largely unprecedented deferment to the entire field of 27,000 that had spent the last year qualifying, registering and training for what is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“We’re asking runners who haven’t run previously to think about tomorrow and maybe coming back next year,” Boston Mayor Tom Menino told the attendees at the traditional pre-race pasta dinner on City Hall Plaza on Sunday night. “We don’t want have any accidents out there, or anybody overtaken by the heat.”
While I sincerely hope that the inexperienced runners take advantage of the deferment opportunity and that there are as few heat-related injuries as possible, it is inevitable that this year will be extremely busy for the professional and volunteer medical staff positioned all along the course. However, the resilience lemonade made from high heat lemons will be a region better prepared for future mass casualty incidents:
Thousands of runners pass through eight different towns on their way to the finish line. Coordinating medical care and security for the runners and spectators strengthens connections that will be relied upon when Boston requires mutual aid to deal with a crisis such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack.
To successfully manage the marathon, BEMS and other public safety agencies must have relationships not just with the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race, but also with a diverse set of private organizations. These include, but are not limited to, private ambulance services that back up BEMS, and hotels and other businesses along the route that help make the behind-the-scenes operation of the marathon run smoothly. When a real disaster strikes, these contacts can be called upon to lend needed supplies and other assistance.
Along with the large number of volunteers, from the medically trained to those simply handing out water, it is these connections forged in a cooperative year-long planning process and an intense day of “exercising” that pull a community together and prepare it for unforeseen events.
Update: Juliette Kayyem strains to support my argument in her latest Boston Globe article:
Behind those familiar words lies a fundamental tenet of emergency management: Systems to protect the public need to be practiced and validated. As it is, first responders constantly test their response plans. These efforts can be small tabletop exercises, like those performed in the buildup to the Boston Marathon today, or large simulations of catastrophic events with people acting the parts of victims. Some of these exercises are helpful, others a waste of time. But in the end, they don’t fully suffice because everybody knows it is just a test.
Most scholars in disaster management acknowledge that the truest evaluation of any response system is one that gets as close to a catastrophe as real life allows, but falls short of real damage. What can we learn from a bad thing that didn’t happen, but that, for a brief while, everyone thought would?
Okay….I’m stretching it a little bit. She actually goes on to analyze the response to the most recent Indonesian earthquake and the importance of educating the public about threats.
I was just desperate for affirmation…