Canadian Security Magazine

Bags and bomb sniffing dogs: NYC Marathon organizers balance security concerns after Boston

By Rachel Cohen for The Associated Press   

News Public Sector New York City marathon security

NEW YORK - The New York City Marathon's finish area will again fill with spectators, some carrying bags. More bomb-sniffing dogs also will be roaming around. Less than seven months after the attack on the Boston Marathon, runners and fans will pack the streets of New York's five boroughs next month.

The increased security will be unmistakable, from barriers around Central Park to added checkpoints.

Marathon organizer New York Road Runners, though, decided it would be impractical to ban bags from the finish area. Spectators are encouraged to bring no more than one per person, no larger than the size of a purse.

When NYRR President Mary Wittenberg describes the race-day scene the group wants to celebrate, it’s the same qualities that make the massive event vulnerable.

“It is that intersection of spectator and neighbour and volunteer and the runners of New York and from around the world, and everybody coming out cheering for each other, inspiring each other, that makes it the marathon,” Wittenberg said Thursday, a month before the Nov. 3 race.

For a major marathon in the Northeast, those images are, for now, distant memories.

Last year’s NYC Marathon never happened. The damage from Superstorm Sandy forced its cancellation, but not before many New Yorkers decried city and race officials’ initial plans to go on with the event. And not before thousands of entrants from around the world flew to the city, encouraged by those first assurances that the race was on.

Then on April 15 in Boston, two bombs exploded near the finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 260.

Less than 24 hours after the bombings, NYRR staffers met. They vowed not to scale down the size and spectacle of their race that so appeal to fans and runners alike.

NYRR’s operations team later spent two days huddling with its counterparts at the Boston and Chicago marathons (Chicago’s race is Oct. 13). The organization also hired an outside consulting firm to audit its security practices and shifted some personnel from general logistics to security matters, said Peter Ciaccia, the race’s technical director. Key staffers and volunteers will receive new training in emergency management.

The 2001 marathon took place less than two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, so security has been heightened ever since. Now it will be tightened even more.

Securing the start at Staten Island is straightforward because of its location – Fort Wadsworth. The bridges on the race course are similarly restrictive.

But the finish is in Central Park, a sprawling public space. Barriers will be erected around it, and people can enter only through a few designated checkpoints where bags will be searched. There will be additional checkpoints to reach the marathon course.

Wittenberg said banning bags from the bleachers around the finish area was considered, but organizers decided spectators needed to carry clothing and provisions for themselves and the runners they plan to meet afterward. Runners will be prohibited from wearing hydration vests.

Security along the course will be handled by the police. NYPD spokesman John McCarthy didn’t want to go into details Thursday.

“We will advise of traffic conditions, road closures and security measures at the appropriate time, closer to the event,” he said.

The marathon again expects close to 48,000 finishers. About 21,000 runners who signed up last year took the option of a guaranteed spot into the 2013 race; they had to again pay the entry fee. About 6,000 will run next year and 1,600 in 2015.

Others who instead chose the refund will still run this year because they secured a slot through other qualifying methods. All the returnees from 2012 will receive orange rubber wristbands to wear, with the hope that they’ll receive special recognition from spectators and volunteers.

Runners who got in through charity programs last year were assured entry without having to raise the money again. Wittenberg said those charities reported close to $30 million raised in 2012 even without the race.

NYRR decided to set aside space for the full allotment of 8,200 additional participants through charity programs this year. Those slots have been slow to fill, though. Wittenberg believes that is partly because the marathon’s lottery was smaller, later and less-publicized than usual; in previous years, people who didn’t get in through the lottery would flock to the charity programs.

On Oct. 13, NYRR will hold a half-marathon and other events on Staten Island, with proceeds going to local Sandy recovery efforts. The storm’s devastation in the borough where the marathon starts was a juxtaposition that enraged many who called for the race’s cancellation last year. And during marathon week, NYRR will post volunteer opportunities for runners and their friends and family who want to help out communities still rebuilding from Sandy.

Wittenberg said NYRR had heard little concern from entrants about security risks. And the ire many runners expressed about the handling of last year’s cancellation seems to have cooled with time and the announcement of the refund and guaranteed entry options.

But until the crowds line the sides of First Avenue to cheer on the runners, before the lottery for next year’s race opens, it will be hard to know for sure if the first Sunday in November in New York will ever feel quite the same.

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