Americans generally accept a role for government in meeting a number of important national needs. Defense, schools, roads, bridges, public health and safety, and courts are all services that we as a society support with tax dollars as components of government policy. Emergency management is another. The immediate response to last week’s Boston Marathon bombing is a case study in how valuable that service is when it succeeds. The events of that day have broad lessons for the country in how to prepare for and respond to future crises.
After disasters like September 11th and Hurricane Katrina, it was apparent to officials and experts concerned with emergency services that local, state, and national governments needed to collaborate more effectively. The great variations between different places in the country, the distribution of power across different tiers of government, and the large number of agencies involved in relief was stacking logistical disaster on top of natural disaster. The move to fix that represents one of the most overlooked but most important components of America’s improved capacity to respond to national crises.
Boston has long been a major priority for national security officials. From 2002 to now, the Department of Homeland Security has given the city $370 million in grants to prepare their response network. One program on which the city spent this money was Urban Shield, which consisted of two 24-hour drills to test responsiveness to everything from hostage crises to theater shootings. Police, SWAT teams, the Coast Guard, local hospitals, and other critical emergency respondents took part in both drills to find and eliminate deficiencies. In the past three years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has conducted eight disaster response exercises of its own and trained 5,500 respondents. Hospitals and emergency medical responders have adopted systems to share information and mobilize resources during crises.
This effort has taken a long time and cost a lot of money, but it has now paid off. Thanks to its preparation, Boston responded swiftly to the bombing. It shut down the public trains in the area while the Federal Aviation Administration grounded flights. Emergency medical personnel sprang to action, spread the worst injuries across several hospitals to avoid overload, and kept the ratio of deaths to injuries low. Police secured the vicinity and moved people out. This coordination was done without blocking action by spectators trying to help, enabling the kind of civilian support that has been widely praised in the past week. In the end, 282 people were saved and only three died. That is no consolation to the families of those who died or to people who lost limbs, but the incident would have been much worse in the absence of effective response mechanisms.
Important events since the bombings have overtaken a careful evaluation of the immediate response. However, it is clear that this meticulous preparation greatly reduced the impact of the attack. This must be remembered as we consider the possible implications of this bombing for public action. It is prudent to have a conversation about the policy lessons we can learn from the incident. Because disaster relief is still an area on which there is broad (though far from complete) bipartisan cooperation, it is an important and productive conversation to have.
First, we should shun any effort to exploit this event to slow down other action or to curtail liberties. Conservative politicians like Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have already attempted to use it to slow down immigration reform; to their credit, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) have pushed back on these efforts. Others have attempted to use the attack to target American Muslims. Fox News spread fear of a “Saudi national” who was quickly found to have nothing to do with the bombings. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) advocated increased surveillance of American Muslims in response. None of this should have a place in a reasonable conversation about what to do going forward.
The smarter and more humane approach is to continue improving our collective emergency response capacity. In the future, cities and towns across America should aim to be as prepared as Boston was for a crisis. The largest of them should conduct their own city-wide disaster drills, and even the smallest should create contingency plans in the event of crisis. Many of them will not be able to afford those programs on their own, so state and federal resources should be available to help them. To that end, we must protect programs like FEMA and federal grants to states. Resources for both are being cut and should be restored.
Furthermore, those funds should be simpler to pursue. The federal government should heed Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s advice to consolidate her department’s state grant programs. The process of acquiring those funds should be as straightforward and efficient as possible, from the submission of requests to the final dispersal of the money. Such streamlining would save money and make it easier for cities to prepare.
Total prevention of incidents like this is impossible. Even Boston’s preparation did not stop the bombing from happening. All the same, that preparation was a worthy investment that saved lives and made a terrible situation somewhat less so. Protecting public safety is one of the most important functions of government. The people of Boston have shown that it can work. We should learn from them.