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Increased security measures planned for Pittsburgh Marathon after Boston bombings

| Tuesday, April 16, 2013, 12:06 p.m.
AFP/Getty Images
A Boston police officer stands guard at a memorial site at Boylston and Arlington streets along the course of the Boston Marathon on April 16, 2013, a few blocks from where two explosions struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon the day before.

Theresa Kail-Smith saw the news from Boston and immediately thought about whether Pittsburgh should cancel its marathon.

As chair of City Council's Public Safety Committee, Kail-Smith thought about the crowds that will fill nearly 30 miles of Pittsburgh streets on May 5, and whether the city could possibly keep them safe.

“Then I asked someone about canceling and said, ‘That's the worst thing we can do,'” she recalled Tuesday, a day after bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured more than 170. “You don't want to send that message.”

With less than three weeks to change a year's worth of planning for the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, organizers say they have no intention of cancelling or postponing the event. They will review their security plan with city leaders, said Stanley Parker, the marathon's vice president, who finished the Boston Marathon before the blasts.

The city will increase security by drawing police officers from other jurisdictions to help, Public Safety Director Michael Huss said.

“We're working to get the required number of officers we need,” he said.

Chief Regina McDonald referred questions to Huss and said through spokeswoman Diane Richard: “At this time, we do not wish to share any information regarding staffing or any other plans for the event.”

Hours before the Boston bombing, Pittsburgh police notified officers of available off-duty work during the marathon. Huss said that the police bureau has been working with the Fraternal Order of Police on marathon preparations for several weeks.

“We've taken steps toward additional security methods for the marathon,” Huss said after a scheduled meeting with the city's public safety chiefs. “It focuses around planning and additional resources we'll need for the marathon.”

The marathon hires about 350 police officers and 200 private security guards for race weekend, which includes a 5K race on May 4 and the combined marathon, half marathon and relay on May 5, said Dee Stathis, director of logistics and operations for the marathon.

She said organizers are comfortable with their approach to protecting nearly 30,000 runners and tens of thousands more spectators and volunteers.

Marathon officials said they made changes after a discarded microwave in 2010 caused them to shut down the race and change the route. Huss said the city in 2011 started putting increased emphasis in sweeping the race course for explosive devices.

They also have learned from other big city races, she said.

“You cannot let paranoia overtake you,” said Bob Heibel, a former deputy chief of counterterrorism for the FBI who has taught at Mercyhurst University for 21 years and founded its Institute for Intelligence Studies.

A second attack in the next few days might cause organizers to cancel some large events, Heibel said. But he believes law enforcement learned enough after 9/11 to deal with most threats.

Pittsburgh Marathon organizers touted some of their existing security precautions:

• They set up 12,000 linear feet of fencing to separate runners and race personnel from spectators and other people at sensitive spots such as the start and finish lines.

• Volunteers are taught how to manage crowds in an emergency, and those who staff water and first-aid stations meet four times a year for training.

• Organizers use buses to pick up stragglers at the end of the race and transport relay runners between several spots on the course. If officials shut down the race, they will use those buses to pick up stranded runners. Stathis said organizers learned this from Chicago, where high heat shut down the marathon in 2007.

• Crews limit access to start and finish lines for several days before the event.

• This year, spectators won't be allowed in areas where runners gather before the race, known as “corrals.” Stathis said that is based on comments last year from runners, who reported that spectators got in their way.

The marathon should review whether to allow runners and spectators to carry backpacks, Kail-Smith said. Some runners carry water and other items in small packs.

Organizers haven't looked at that yet, Stathis said.

Runners will hear before the race if bags are banned, Huss said.

Bob Liscouski, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said some marathons limit what runners carry.

“There probably will be more restrictions on what people carry in,” he said.

Penn State said Tuesday it will ban backpacks, bags and purses from Beaver Stadium during the annual Blue-White football scrimmage on Saturday.

Increased security was visible Tuesday at Consol Energy Center as Penguins practice began at 11 a.m. Arena management asked for extra police officers until further notice, said Lt. Thomas Atkins, who schedules off-duty officers to work there.

“They want people at every door, every entrance, and they'll have people outside looking for anything out of the ordinary,” Atkins said.

The Penguins said more measures are set for the game Wednesday evening against the Montreal Canadiens. The Pirates said they would add to security at PNC Park but declined to provide details.

“It's not business as usual when something like this happens,” Penguins' CEO and President David Morehouse said.

The Penguins are scheduled to play in Boston on Friday. They said they expect no change in travel plans.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Staff writers Salena Zito and Rob Rossi contributed to this report. David Conti and Margaret Harding are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Conti can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com. Harding can be reached at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

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