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This is what it feels like to lead the crisis response during the Boston Marathon Bombings

Industry Trends | By | 2 Dec 2019 | 4 minute read

Daniel Linskey, former Police Chief of the Boston Police Department, led the crisis response for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. 27 years after his first assignment at the Boston Marathon, he found himself at the same event which started his career. But, this time, it was a nightmare. 

Imagine being in his position. You’re overseeing an extremely busy event, and everything’s running smoothly. Suddenly, panic and chaos breaks out! You hear people around you screaming for help. You realize a bomb has detonated and you’re in charge of the event’s safety. What would you do? What decisions would you make?

Daniel gave a heart-wrenching keynote at SafetyCulture’s North American iAuditor Summit, sharing some of the core lessons learned from leading through one of the world’s most gripping crisis’.

Before the marathon

Lesson 1: Preparation sets you up for action, not prevention 

Having a policy or procedure on paper doesn’t always prepare you for the worst. Before the marathon, Daniel trained the Boston Police Department in response to the modern threats and challenges they were facing. The entire department ran drills based on real-life scenarios, like active shooter events and hostage situations.   

Being prepared sets you up for action. In Daniel’s opinion, you need to go through the entire crisis strategy as a team. 

“If you haven’t trained together, worked together, and figured it out together, you’re not going to have a solution—you’re going to have a problem.”

The morning of the marathon 

Lesson 2: Leave your assumptions at the door

On the day of the bombing, Daniel walked the entire marathon route with sniffer dogs to check for bombs. Daniel’s team made the deadly assumption that if there was to be an attack, it would happen at the beginning of the race. After the first runners crossed the line, everyone relaxed. They never guessed an attack would take place four hours in. 

Assumptions can be dangerous. Always prepare for every eventuality.

The blast

Lesson 3: Good teams step up, great teams trust

Immediately after the bombing, one officer, Dan Keeler, radioed in as soon as the first blast happened with vital information, while the rest of the team tried to do the same. The only message coming through Daniel’s radio was the noise of people talking over each other. He had no idea what was happening. It was chaos. 

Communication is important—but listening is key. In a state of sheer panic, everyone must trust and follow the direction of the leader.

During the aftermath, Daniel made the decision to tell every unit to stay off the air so that one officer could speak and communicate exactly what was going on. 

Good teams burst into action, but great teams trust. 

Minutes after the blast

Lesson 4: Open up your file cabinet

In the moment, action means taking initiative and doing exactly what you’re equipped to do, while trusting others to do their job.

Daniel was struck emotionally during the first moments of the crisis. He came across a woman whose leg was torn from the blast. His first instinct was to help her, even though he wasn’t a medical professional.  

In that crisis situation, it wasn’t where his skills were needed the most. Daniel wasn’t drawing upon his ‘file cabinet’—his inner resources and knowledge.

“A Massachusetts state trooper came over to me and he grabbed me and said, “Chief we need you, in the middle of the street.” 

Suddenly, it clicked for Daniel and he became furious. Not at the trooper, but at himself for having to be reminded that his team needed him. That unlocked his ‘file cabinet’—the repository in his brain that knew exactly what needed to be done as a leader.

“Everything I’d ever done was in my file cabinet; I just had to open it up and use it. First thing—assess the situation.”

Hours after the blast

Lesson 5: Be the calmest and the coolest

So once you get in control, Daniel’s next lesson is to be the calmest and coolest in any crisis situation. 

Daniel knew exactly what he had to do, and trusted his team to carry out the necessary investigations. Daniel shares:

“In a crisis, there are 5000 things you gotta do, but identify the 5 things that you need to do right now. And more importantly than the things you come up with, is the manner in which you tell your troops how to do them.”

That day, this was Daniel’s plan: 

  1. Treat injured people and get them out of the street. 
  2. Set up incident command at the firehouse. 
  3. Conduct a street sweep to make sure no other devices. 
  4. Evacuate people and victims who are sheltering in place. 
  5. Find someone to communicate on social media, tell the world what happened.

Days after the blast

Lesson 6: Remember that you’re human

During a crisis, it’s easy to revert to carrying out tasks like a robot. It’s easy to forget how to respond as a human. Daniel shared the story of two officers disobeying official orders so they could take turns standing at attention in front of the deceased body of an 8 year-old victim. They couldn’t remove his body from the scene because official investigations still needed to take place. This behavior didn’t help the team get closer to the perpetrator, but it was human. 

It was then Daniel remembered his own family.

“At one point in the investigation, I realized I had made a tragic mistake because my wife was going to greet me and my sons at the end of the race.”

His sons attended the marathon every single year as spectators. That year, they wanted to sleep in instead. Daniel’s personal and human communication strategy failed in his eyes that day because he didn’t send a simple message to his wife to let her know that everyone was okay. His own wife spent hours fearing for her family’s life. 

Dealing with a crisis is just as much about tactical plans, as it is about recognizing human impacts. 

If you want to be a leader, lead

Anyone can be a leader if they want to see change happen. When you see something that needs to be improved, step up as a leader to shift the status quo.

Daniel says, “You as a leader have to take on change and see it through, and sometimes that makes people uncomfortable.”

Have you ever experienced a crisis situation? How did Daniel’s story reflect your own leadership decisions?

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