The April 2013 Boston Marathon from an Amateur Radio Perspective

(From Amateur Radio Newsline Report 1862, April 19, 2013)


Some 250 ham radio operators were providing communications for the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15th, when a pair of bombs believed planted by a terrorist went off killing three onlookers and sending scores to local hospitals.  Some with very serious and life threatening injuries.  Amateur Radio Newsline’s Mark Abramowicz, NT3V, is here with what’s known about the attack and the role played by the hams on scene:

It is a day Paul Topolski, W1SEX, will never forget.

Topolski tells Newsline he was working with radio operators close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon and things were going well.  And then, there was the first blast.

“I was in the net control trailer about 400 feet from where the blast was,” he recalls. “Things were going pretty smooth and we had and were commenting all of the operations that we had were up and running and no real issues.

“And, within a couple of minutes, my assistant and I just happened to be looking at each other out of the corner of our eye and then that blast hit and shook the trailer and we knew it wasn’t good.”
Topolski says then the second blast went off and they knew things were going to be brought to a halt. He says their big concern, operators at the medical tents at each mile along the route…

“Net control immediately started doing a roll call and finding out where all our people were – exact locations and their conditions, making sure that they were okay.  And, as it turns out everyone was just fine and continuing operations.”

Just before that roll call began, Topolski told his counterpart overseeing net-control on the course to reach out to him on a secure line.

Steve Schwarm, W3EVE, who also spoke with Newsline about the events of that day, was on the receiving end of that call and was a bit surprised.

“He calls me on the radio and says, ‘Call me on my cell phone.’  And, I know something’s got to be wrong because he’ll only talk to me on the cell phone when it’s something he doesn’t want anybody else to hear,” Schwarm says.

“So, I called him on the cell phone and that’s when he told me that two bombs had gone off in downtown and said I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but thought you’d like to know and I said thanks.

“So, I stopped all the activity in my net control and announced it to everybody there and I said that we don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I’m quite sure the race is probably over.”
Topolski, who was at the medical tent close to the finish line, says once it was established all those close to the bomb locations were okay, there was general agreement among the operators to stay at their posts and assist…

“It was a kind of a mindset, ‘Okay, we did have a problem and let’s continue to do our jobs,’ and everybody did just that until we were finally sent on our way by the Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police because we were literally right in the “ground zero” area,” Topolski says. “We were in the crime scene so we had to bug out.”

But, before they were sent out, Topolski says the operators were busy helping medical personnel…

“Instead of taking care of runners, we were no working with the medical people who were serving casualties from the incident itself,” Topolski says. “We had medical coverage, or coverage in the medical tents and we started receiving reports of those injuries and the types of things that were going on and then we were relaying that information to the public safety people via WebEOC and other means.”

Topolski estimates those closest to the blast zones were there for about 35 minutes afterward until they got sent out because of concerns among authorities about other possible devices.
Back to Schwarm at course net control, who in the minutes after the blasts was now working with operators still out on the course.

“Police were ordering people to stop,” Schwarm says. “So runners tended to congregate at the first aid stations and the water-fluid stations along the course. And all of them had ham radio operators.

“So, as soon as that happened, we told everybody on the frequency what was going on. The event had stopped and they would start to organize those people. And, then we started to use some of our medical sweep buses to take the runners to some pre-determined shelters.
“The original thought was that if we had something like a thunderstorm come through and had lightning and things like that we wouldn’t want all these people on the course. So, that was the original intended use for the shelters but they found out that they could be used for this as well.”
Schwarm says for the operators close to the blast zones, it was a hectic time….

“They supplied communications for the medical tents and that was where a lot of the initial triage of the runners occurred and a lot of lives were probably saved because they had basically a first-class emergency room right there,” Schwarm says.

But the day was far from over for Topolski and his operators who were evacuated from the developing crime scene, Schwarm says….

“The roles actually got reversed because they were concerned about having another device in the area so they had a lot of people evacuated,” Schwarm says. “Paul and his team evacuated and several of his operators came up to help me in case we were going to be doing an extended operation.

“It wasn’t clear how long it was going to take for us to get this thing cleaned up and they came up to help in case we needed some backup. I was very concerned about some of my net control operators getting exhausted, needing some backup. So I knew he had some good people and they came up to help out.”

So, where was net control for the course? Schwarm says the Boston area hams put it at a perfect location…

“We’re actually quite a distance from the course,” Schwarm says. “We’re about a mile or two from the course. It’s at a facility, it’s a private school in Brookline which is a suburb of Boston.

“And, it’s on top of a very high hill, which, if we had to, we could probably work every single repeater we use with a 100-milliwatt walkie-talkie because we can see them all – literally. And, it makes an ideal location for it and we also then have high-speed internet at our fingertips and several phone lines and a few things like that. It’s a very nice facility.”

So what form of communications do the hams who work the Boston Marathon use? VHF frequencies only, Schwarm says…

“The Boston Marathon is the only marathon that’s run in a straight line,” Schwarm explains. “And we plan on having HT-coverage for the entire course and the finish and the start. So, as a result, you tend to use a fair number of frequencies to make that happen.

“We use five separate repeaters to cover five sections of the course. And, then we have a network of linked repeaters that we use to cover the entire course from beginnning to end just for things that need to be covered across that range.”

Topolski has been involved in the marathon amateur radio coverage for 20 years. For Schwarm, this was his 13th year and he says it won’t be his last.

“I think what you’ll find is that next year we’re going to have a bigger and better Boston Marathon and we’re going to go on,” Schwarm says. “I mean we went through a lot of planning and soul searching for these kinds of things after 9-11 and this was probably a wake-up call to re-think some of those.”

For the Amateur Radio Newsline, I’m Mark Abramowicz, NT3V in Philadelphia.