boston marathan
© APRunners cover themselves with foil blankets as they receive medical attention in the medical tent after running in the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2007.
Today thousands of runners and hundreds of thousands of spectators are unwittingly taking part in a planned disaster. Yet, they are not just safe from harm (except for the variety brought on by running 26.2 miles), they also are participants in an event that will make the citizens of Greater Boston safer in case of a natural catastrophe or terrorist attack.

Primary responsibility for the health and well-being of both runners and spectators in Boston rests with Boston Emergency Medical Service (BEMS), along with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Emergency Management Agency. According to BEMS chief Richard Serino, his department considers events like the marathon and the Fourth of July celebration as "planned disasters" - safe, controlled environments that present "an opportunity to test some things you would never want to test in a real disaster."

Although the principal goal during such events remains the safety of everyone involved, organizers have realized that these annual gatherings of hundreds of thousands of people present the perfect opportunity to evaluate new technologies, exercise disaster plans, and build vital relationships between public safety agencies and the private sector.

For example, a tracking system that utilizes barcodes and hand scanners to log a patient's condition and location has been tested during past races. During a real disaster, this technology could provide authorities quick access to the location and condition of casualties, information that currently takes hours, if not days, for friends and families of the injured to ascertain.

This year, as always, even more important than testing new technologies is the development of relationships between various public safety and medical communities, as well as with the private sector. Homeland security specialists often talk about the importance of not waiting to "exchange business cards at the scene of a disaster." This means that counterparts from different agencies meet each other before a disaster thrusts them together for the first time.

Treating these large, annual events as opportunities to test the disaster response system accomplishes exactly that. Personnel from public safety and health departments meet regularly during the year to plan these events. New officials will quickly meet their counterparts in other agencies. As described in a recent Globe story about how close the 2007 race came to being cancelled due to weather, a unified command is established where all the relevant organizations can monitor the event and react together if something goes wrong.

This cooperation extends beyond Boston. Thousands of runners pass through eight different towns on their way to the finish line. Coordinating medical care and security for the runners and spectators strengthens connections that will be relied upon when Boston requires mutual aid to deal with a crisis such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

To successfully manage the marathon, BEMS and other public safety agencies must have relationships not just with the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the race, but also with a diverse set of private organizations. These include, but are not limited to, private ambulance services that back up BEMS, and hotels and other businesses along the route that help make the behind-the-scenes operation of the marathon run smoothly. When a real disaster strikes, these contacts can be called upon to lend needed supplies and other assistance.

This type of innovation is not limited to Massachusetts. In Washington,D.C., the city's evacuation plan is tested during the mass exodus of people after the fireworks finale at the Fourth of July festivities. California has developed medical surge plans to be used after catastrophes such as an earthquake in San Francisco or a nuclear terrorist attack in Los Angeles. The New York Police Department has created robust intelligence and counter-terrorism divisions to protect its residents.

Massachusetts is better prepared for a real disaster because every Patriot's Day and Fourth of July is treated as a "disaster." Instead of constant warnings about the inevitability of another terrorist attack or natural catastrophe, the public would be better served if this type of local homeland security innovation were promoted and adopted elsewhere.

Arnold Bogis is a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.