Security along the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon is a daunting task

David Riley%%More Content Now News

Several Bay State security consultants say the most effective way to step up safety measures at next year’s Boston Marathon might be the simplest: public awareness.

“I think what we all try to do is enlist the aid of the average person,” said Norman D. Bates, an attorney and president of Bolton-based Liability Consultants Inc. “If you see something that strikes you as odd or suspicious, then speak up about it.” 

The marathon’s organizer, the Boston Athletic Association, has not disclosed how security might change after last week’s bombing killed three people and injured more than 170. Police departments along the route also have said it’s too early to say.

But it  appears unavoidable that security will be tighter, especially near the finish line. The attack already prompted organizers of marathons across the globe to revisit safety measures, with hundreds of additional police officers assigned to the London Marathon on Sunday, according to the BBC.

Likely new steps at next year’s Boston Marathon or at other major public events might include more barricades, a stricter police-controlled security perimeter to manage crowds, regular bag searches or more prominently displayed surveillance cameras, several consultants said.

“How people gather in public in large numbers changed on Monday,” said Howard Levinson, president of Expert Security Consulting in Norton.

However, each additional measure has limits. Surveillance cameras played a crucial role in identifying the suspects in last week’s bombing, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, but research shows they do little to deter attacks, Bates said.

Paul F. Kelly, a retired U.S. Secret Service agent from Orleans, said crowds can build up at access points along a security perimeter at what are known as “choke points” – areas an attacker might still decide to target if his or her goal is to maim and kill.

Ultimately, it is at best challenging to secure the full 26.2-mile route along public roads and streets.

“It sounds like a marathon is probably the most difficult event imaginable,” Bates said.

It comes down to weighing the likelihood of a threat at different points along the route, and how vulnerable each of those spots is, said Kelly, a principal at Cape Cod consulting firm the Nauset Group.

Authorities also have to weigh the cost of increased security versus the gain, he said. For example, during a presidential inauguration, the Secret Service takes steps to secure the route above-ground and below, sealing manhole covers and removing mailboxes that could hide explosives.

“Is that feasible to try and do that for 26 miles?” Kelly said. “This is where you get into the risk versus the gain and the cost versus the gain.”

There’s also a question of how spectators will react to what’s traditionally been a very public event.

“It’s a real trick bag,” Kelly said. “You have to live within what is tolerable.”

All three consultants said encouraging average people to take note of anything suspicious and speak up might produce some of the best results.

“You hate to make everybody paranoid,” Bates said, but in security, “you really do depend on everyone around you.”

Simple steps might include simply taking note of behavior that looks out of place – someone wearing a heavy coat on a hot day, for example, Bates said.

Levinson recalled how a street vendor who spotted smoke coming out of a sport utility vehicle and alerted police helped foil a 2010 attempt to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square.

“What it’s going to come down to is that one person who sees something and tips somebody off,” he said.

Kelly agreed, though he said an unattended backpack like the ones the FBI believe were used to hide bombs in Boston probably would not have looked out of place on Monday. Many runners and spectators carried bags with water, snacks and changes of clothes.

Another challenge is maintaining a higher level of alertness. Increased security tends to come after a crisis, then subside, according to Levinson.

He consulted for a movie theater chain after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. While there were major concerns about security in cinemas afterward, those worries soon faded, he said.

“People will react – potentially overreact – and put resources, time, money into something on a short-term basis,” Levinson said. “It tends to drift back to where it was, or maybe a little better than it was.”

David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or driley@wickedlocal.com.