Pittsburgh marathon officials take hard look at security

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Even before Monday's fatal explosions at the Boston Marathon, organizers of the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon had planned tight security for the city's May 5 race. But after learning of the attack, race organizers and emergency officials plan to take another look at their safety measures and potentially add security measures such as additional bomb sweeps, according to race director Patrice Matamoros.

Runners and spectators are safe at the event, she said, but organizers want to work with city and county public safety officials to make sure the event's security is as strong as possible. The race is expected to draw nearly 28,000 runners and between 30,000 and 50,000 spectators.

"We will be going into meetings between now and race day to discuss security and what else we can do to ensure runners' safety," Ms. Matamoros said on Monday.

Pittsburgh Marathon executive director talks about precautions

Patrice Matamoros, executive director of the Pittsburgh Marathon, talks to KDKA-TV about what security precautions are planned for the city's race in May. (4/14/2013)

Ray Demichiei, the city's deputy emergency management director, declined to say exactly what changes might be made but said Pittsburgh's marathon security will be "the No. 1 issue on the agenda" at this morning's regularly scheduled public safety chiefs' meeting.

"Obviously, we're going to sit down and look at it with a different set of eyes now, considering what happened," Mr. Demichiei said. "I'm not sure we're going to do anything differently, but we're going to look at it and look at it hard."

Until the 2010 marathon, when a microwave containing what was thought to be explosives was discovered along the race route, organizers had used a very basic security plan, according to Ms. Matamoros. But after that bomb scare -- which overwhelmed local cell phone networks, leaving organizers without working cell phones and unable to talk to each other -- she and other organizers got serious about security, she said.

Race organizers studied security and communications at marathons and other major events across the country, including in Boston, New York City and Chicago. They hired a crisis management team from Texas to prepare responses to emergencies as varied as running out of water, traffic jams and the detonation of a bomb. And they worked with the same communications company used by organizers of the Boston Marathon to improve their ability to communicate in the event of a crisis, according to Ms. Matamoros.

Under the Pittsburgh marathon's current security system, she said, organizers pay the city for the help of 350 on-duty police officers and hire an additional 200 security guards, at a cost of approximately $160,000. The Allegheny County Emergency Operations Center is in charge of public safety for the race.

The race route is checked for suspicious-looking objects on race week and in the early morning immediately before the race, she said. During the race, a team of bike riders looks again for anything suspicious or unusual along the route, which is also lined with numerous surveillance cameras. And a bomb squad with a bomb-sniffing dog inspects people at the start line, she said.

Runners must check any gear, and the area around the start and finish lines is fenced to exclude anyone without an appropriately numbered race "bib."

For the first time, race organizers also have ordered 12,000 linear feet of 6-foot chain link fencing to control crowds that gather at especially packed "choke points," Ms. Matamoros said.

In an emergency, she said, officials at the emergency operations center would decide how to respond, and relay information by text and email, if necessary, to race organizers at the course finish line. From there, the message would be sent to the course technical director, who in turn sends it to the leader or leaders of the race course sectors where the emergency is happening.

Sector leaders -- using scripted messages that include exact instructions of what to do and what to say to runners, volunteers and spectators -- then would contact "water captains" and other volunteers at some or all of the 22 water stops, 19 medical aid stations and four relay exchanges along the course.

Those volunteers, who have been trained in what to expect in various scenarios, then become ad-hoc emergency responders in addition to police and other officials, using megaphones to communicate with runners, spectators and other volunteers. Approximately 100 musical bands performing along the race route also would be called upon to use their sound systems as a public address system to relay messages to the crowd, which could be evacuated to nearby churches and schools if necessary, Ms. Matamoros said.

While the Boston Marathon had similar, and probably even more stringent, security measures in place before Monday's explosions, Ms. Matamoros said she is not worried about public safety during the Pittsburgh Marathon because Boston and other large cities are much more compelling targets for terrorists.

"I think our runners are safe," she said. "We are doing what it takes to keep them safe, and we've been doing it for years."

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Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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