Higher ed emergency managers' response to Boston bombings: A look back

Higher ed emergency managers' response to Boston bombings: A look back

Among the challenges were communicating quickly and reduced staffs due to state holiday

After the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, emergency response teams at Boston-area colleges had to act fast. Between reaching out to the community and accounting for students and faculty running or attending the race, institutions had much to contend with that day.

Managers from Boston College, Suffolk University, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston shared their experiences during a recent online forum aimed at helping administrators across the country learn about their actions in the wake of the tragedy.

Communicating through a crisis

With all the uncertainty and conflicting information being reported, it was important for institutional leaders to swiftly and accurately communicate with their communities.

At Boston College, five miles from the marathon finish line, officials used an emergency notification system to send messages to students and parents throughout the day. John Tommaney, director of emergency management, said that while his department doesn’t typically communicate with parents in this way, he felt that the magnitude of the bombing called for keeping everyone in the loop. “Communication was paramount throughout this whole experience.”

Three hundred Boston College students were running the race that day, Tommaney said. “We had to launch an entire initiative to track down the whereabouts of those students. In the midst of all of that, you can imagine receiving many, many calls from campus and around the world. We had to ramp up the crisis communication while continuing to provide key services for the campus community.”

The college also had to take care of another 1,000 runners who were diverted to the campus.

At Suffolk, one thing that made communication smoother was linking the EMS to Twitter and Facebook. That meant that all of the messages could reach a larger audience right away, said John DeSilva, emergency manager at Suffolk.

Public attention

UMass Boston and UMass Dartmouth were both the subject of a lot of conversations in the aftermath of the bombings.

“We had the additional complication of a lot of rumors and a lot of media attention around the two suspects and whether they were UMass, Boston or UMass, Dartmouth students,” said Anne-Marie McLaughlin, emergency manager at UMass, Boston. “The UMass, Dartmouth campus was just turned upside down once it was determined the younger suspect [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] was a UMass Dartmouth student.”

A city in lockdown

When the city of Boston was locked down during the hunt for the suspects on the Friday after the bombing, all of the schools faced personnel decisions, said DeSilva.

Boston College had to decide which members of its workforce were key to running critical operations and figure out how to get them to work with all public transportation shut down. At the same time, his team had to worry about securing the perimeter of the campus and ensuring the 7,000 students in the residence halls were safe and receiving food and other basic care.

Patriots’ Day

While colleges and universities prepare heavily to mobilize during a crisis, no one could predict the events that unfolded—especially on a state holiday when key responders weren’t at work.

McLaughlin noted that UMass Boston has practiced for situations with erroneous and conflicting information and rumors. In this case, all of the schools had off for Patriots’ Day, when the marathon is held each year.

“You prepare for a campus full of people,” she said. The events that wound up unfolding were an entirely different scenario.

Listen to the entire event, presented by Rave Mobile Safety and Margolis Healy.


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