Homeland Security Program Graduate Put Knowledge to Use During Boston Marathon Bombing

July 23, 2015 at 9:30 am 1 comment

When Charlotte Palmer Roy graduated from Penn State College of Medicine’s graduate program in homeland security in 2012, she had no idea her new found knowledge would be put to the ultimate test just one year later during the Boston Marathon bombing. Palmer Roy is the emergency management coordinator at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside Boston.

Every year the marathon route runs past the hospital, at mile 17, and it’s Palmer Roy’s job to prepare the staff and facility for the usual influx of race-related injuries and illnesses.

As Palmer Roy recalls, the day of the horrific event—Monday, April 15, 2013—started out relatively uneventful. At 2:49 p.m., when the bombs detonated near the finish line, her emergency operations center team was getting ready to close up shop.

Instead of heading home for the day, the team braced for the emergency.

Newton-Wellesley is not a trauma facility, so the hospital didn’t receive bombing victims. But the threat of secondary devices meant runners needed to get off the race route as soon as possible, so Palmer Roy’s team set up respite areas in the hospital. A few hours later, the runners were moved to Newton City Hall and then bussed back to the finish line in Boston.

Throughout it all, Palmer Roy said, hospital staff anxiously awaited news of coworkers and loved ones participating in and working at the race.

The next four days continued to be challenging, culminating in a shelter-in-place order on Friday during the manhunt for bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“We were told that he was potentially injured, potentially seeking medical care and potentially wearing a suicide vest,” Palmer Roy said. “That was a challenge because none of the hospitals with an exception of one in Boston are armed.”

Palmer Roy brought in the National Guard to protect the hospital staff and patients in case the bomber showed up there.

“We learned a lot that day about what shelter-in-place means for a hospital,” Palmer Roy said.  “It meant that we could not get staff in or out, and we could not get supplies in. We also could not get discharged patients out, but two hospitals in Boston were diverting their ambulances to us. So we were very quickly surging out at the seams.”

The shelter-in-place status was lifted that evening, but the aftermath of the bombing was not short-lived.

“It was an emotional roller coaster from Monday through the following year, until we got through another marathon,” Palmer Roy said. “We typically plan for the race beginning in February. Well, we started planning for the next year’s marathon the day after that marathon.”

In 2014, and again this year, Palmer Roy coordinated security for the race not just at the local and state level, but also with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA and the National Guard.

“Security along the route was phenomenal. We had 20 SWAT team members and bomb-sniffing dogs here on our campus.”

Palmer Roy said her training at Penn State College of Medicine was invaluable in helping her deal with the bombing and its aftermath.

“For example, I took a course on agriculture biosecurity,” she said. “When we were planning for the marathon the year after the bombing, we were looking at anything and everything that could possibly happen. The agroterrorism piece came in because we had to make sure we were protecting our food and water supply.

“The disaster psychology course helped me understand what needed to be done within our hospital collaborative to support the staff,” she continued. “It helped me understand what people needed initially, and also to recognize the fact that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix for anybody. Anniversaries bring back memories, and watching things on TV can cause secondary trauma. I learned that in the course, so we cautioned people to stay informed but not be overly engrossed in the media.”

Penn State College of Medicine began offering the nation’s first graduate degree in homeland security with a medical focus in 2006. The online intercollege Master of Professional Studies (iMPS) in Homeland Security with an option in Public Health Preparedness is offered through the Penn State World Campus. A working mom, Palmer Roy attended classes at night for two years.

“It was the only way I was going to be able to reach my goals, so it was a perfect fit for me,” she said.

Palmer Roy said the program prepared her not just for the marathons but also for threats like a recent homegrown terrorist plot to behead Boston police officers.

“There are things in Penn State’s courses on critical infrastructure, terrorism and communications that I use every day,” she said. “Some I wish I never had to use, some I thought I never would use.”

This spring semester, the former student became a teaching assistant for the Critical Infrastructure Protection of Health Care Delivery Systems course. Palmer Roy also recently contributed to a son how healthcare and emergency-preparedness workers prepared for and recovered from the 2013 marathon.

“A lot of the preparedness efforts that go into a marathon and disaster and emergency planning here at the hospital, locally and statewide really all did come together and work that day,” Palmer Roy said of the events of 2013. “I hope it never has to again.”

-Jennifer Abbasi

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