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The 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings: What have we learned about resilience?

April 15, 2014
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

One year ago today, two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The tragedy, along with the ensuing manhunt for the suspects, transfixed the globe for days. On this anniversary, it is important to remember those who tragically lost their lives and suffered as a result of this terrorist act.

The resilience exhibited by the City of Boston in the wake of this crisis is something we can all learn from. First responders, working together with the private sector and other stakeholders, did a tremendous job of dealing with the aftermath of the bombing. The people of Boston rallied to support one another and "Boston Strong" became synonymous with the city's collective resilience.

Two key lessons stand out in terms of Boston's response to the bombings:

  1. Building Trusted Public-Private Partnerships
    During a crisis, the private sector plays a major role in most urban settings because of the sheer numbers of employees it has in the area. Having strong, established relationships between the private sector and responders helps to keep people safe.
    Following the explosions, the private sector played a key role in serving as an information conduit to employees and customers to ensure public compliance. Businesses shared messages from the public sector and helped implement the "shelter in place" order to keep people off the streets. The private sector cooperated and worked closely with their public sector counterparts to deal effectively with this event.
    This level of cooperation did not emerge overnight – Boston has been working at developing relationships with the private sector for a long time. Through exercises, regular meetings and working through various scenarios, the private and public sectors have worked together to build a better understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities in an emergency. These activities also helped foster a climate of trust, which was apparent in the cooperation exhibited during the response to the bombing.
    The trusted public-private partnerships, built through regular interactions and exercises, were a key component of Boston's resilience during this emergency.
  2. Using Social Media Effectively
    Social media plays a key role in practically every modern-day emergency. As highlighted in our recent report, this is one of the new realities in emergency management. However, social media does have a darker side - it can lead to the proliferation of rumors, false information and even scams.
    In today's world, where the demand for instant updates is nearly insatiable, emergency managers need to ensure that they are part of the conversation on social media. Being absent from it increases the risk of false speculation and misinformation being used to fill the void. While this may not always have a directly detrimental effect, it can certainly influence the public's perception of the response, which can have negative consequences over the long term.
    The Boston Police Department's response on Twitter was lauded as a case of effective social media use in emergency management. They were very quick to use their Twitter account to communicate with the public and continued to provide updates whenever new information became available. They even announced press conferences through their Twitter account.
    Continuous communication, including responding to Tweets, built public confidence about the handling of the emergency. It most likely played a key role in gaining public compliance with law enforcement instructions as well, since Boston residents had a better understanding of what was going on.
    Using social media effectively, to keep the public and other stakeholders updated and informed on a regular and timely basis has become an essential part of modern emergency management.

The lessons learned from Boston apply to more than just acts of terrorism. The importance of strong, trusted relationships with the private sector was highlighted during the response to the 2013 Calgary flood as well. The need for effective communication on social media and other channels was also noted during the winter storms of 2013/14.

We need to continue to build resilience to a range of potential threats. Learning from those who have done so already will help enhance our own resilience.

The Conference Board's Centre for National Security will be organizing a study tour to New York and Boston, looking at lessons learned from dealing with Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombings respectively. For more information, please download our brochure.

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