The security lessons of the Boston bombings

If it's possible to find a silver lining in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, this is it: There are few places on earth better prepared to respond to a terror attack than the finish line at that iconic race.

Immediately after the blasts, the victims had access to high-level care at the medical tents that had been set up to assist marathoners crossing the finish line, which were converted into trauma centers that likely saved lives. Hundreds of first responders, meanwhile, were quickly on scene to assist in securing the location and transfer those with the worst injuries to area hospitals.

It was "almost a best-case scenario" in terms of disaster response, said Scott Stewart, a former special agent with the U.S. State Department and the VP of Analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm.

In addition to increasing their security footprint in the wake of the Boston bombings, organizers of large public events will look to Boston for lessons on how to best prepare for a possible attack, according to retired FBI agent and Los Angeles police detective David Gomez, president of HLS Global Consulting Group.

"I think the lesson here is that every event has to have preparation of facilities for emergency trauma," he said. "You take the money you get and instead of spending it on bright and shiny objects, you put it into training and equipment and increased levels of security participation at sporting events and major events."

Decisions about security for private events that are held in public, such as the Boston and New York City marathons, are made by organizers in conjunction with local officials. In a statement following the Boston bombings, New York City Marathon chief Mary Wittenberg said safety was organizers' top priority, adding that "[w]e will continue to work hand in hand with the City of New York and the NYPD as we plan for upcoming events."

The New York Police Department told that "we have to learn all the facts that occurred in Boston before we can implement any changes."

"As new information comes in [our approach can] evolve, and we're not necessarily going to disclose all of it," according to a spokesman. The New York Road Runners, which hosts the New York City marathon, is holding a sepearte race on Sunday; in a message on Friday, the group said there would be no trash cans in the vicinity of the race and added, "We strongly encourage you not to bring a bag to Central Park." Those who do bring bags will have to transfer the contents to a clear bag while registering for the race. 

Stewart said that while it is important for officials to take lessons from Boston, the reality is that "there's only so much you can do, especially when we're talking [about] a long, linear target like a marathon race course."

"Even if you were to make a secure point at some area around the finish line, it moves the problems out to where the checkpoints are," he said. "It's just one of those things where there's so many soft targets. You just can't prepare for everything."

The Boston area has received almost $370 million in Department of Homeland Security grant funding since 2002, money which was used in part to train emergency response teams. The grants also funded eight exercises over the past three years in which personnel responded to a simulated biological attack and other scenarios.

On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called for a consolidation of DHS' 18 grant programs, a step she said would help identify gaps in perparedness. Napolitano said the grants and training programs have "proven their value time and time again, and they greatly aided the response two days ago."

"We should continue this support," Napolitano added. The government has cut back in emergency preparedness funding as it has tightened its belt in the past few years: Congress' appropriation for Federal Emergency Preparedness Agency preparedness grants fell from $3.05 billion in fiscal year 2010 to $1.35 billion in fiscal year 2012. 

Stewart said that while Americans should be vigilant for suspicious behavior at public events, they need to come to terms with the fact that it is effectively impossible to stop terrorists determined to inflict harm in an open society.

"It's kind of an inevitability," he said. "And that's where the mind change has to take place with people."

He added that it would be a mistake for the federal government to focus on preventing another event like the Boston bombings.

"The government needs to keep focused on the big threats," said Stewart. "That means keeping professional terrorists from causing really big attacks, especially something using a weapon of mass destruction. Obviously it would be nice if they could prevent everything, but it's just physically impossible."

Full Coverage: The Boston Marathon Bombings