Top marathon officials focus on safety issues

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) It's been a little more than 18 months since the Boston Marathon bombing and the challenge of securing a 26.2-mile area remains one of most daunting undertakings in sports.

To tackle the problem, marathon executives and law enforcement officials are banding together in search of solutions instead of taking on the challenge individually.

About 100 people from some of the nation's top marathons - including Boston, New York, Chicago and Houston - gathered at the University of Southern Mississippi for the National Marathon Safety and Security Summit with the goal of producing a ''best practices'' manual for marathons by the summer.

The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4), which is based at USM, is hosting the event.

''We've processed all the information following the events in Boston and digested all the issues,'' said Dr. Lou Marciani, the director of The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security (NCS4), which is based at Southern Mississippi. ''Now it's time to take action.''

Establishing common guidelines for providing safety and security isn't easy. Though marathons are all the same distance and usually have the most densely populated areas at the start and finish lines, other details can vary drastically.

Some events - like the Boston, Chicago and New York marathons- are contested in dense urban areas. Others - like the Big Sur International Marathon in California or Grandma's Marathon in Minnesota - put runners on long stretches of sparsely populated roads along large bodies of water.

But Marciani believes all can benefit from procedural advice the summit is working to produce.

Steve Georges, the deputy chief of special functions for the Chicago Police Department, has worked with the Chicago Marathon for nine years, including the last five years as the lead planner. Many major marathons, including Chicago, have already beefed up security by providing more officers - uniformed and undercover - and using more video surveillance.

Georges said a good public relations campaign, including encouraging spectators and runners to report suspicious activity, is also vital. Even then, there are many variables to consider when covering security for that much area.

''There's nothing like it,'' Georges said. ''It's 26.2 miles of not only open road, but in Chicago you've got mass transit systems, train systems and subway systems. Even a lake. There are a number of unique security challenges that we deal with.''

The 23-year police veteran said communication between race officials and local and federal law enforcement is vital.

''The thing that is most important for us is getting the buy-in from the organizers in making sure that safety and security is at the forefront,'' Georges said. ''We have that (in Chicago). We're very fortunate to have that with this group.''

Peter Ciaccia, the chief production officer and technical director of the TCS New York City Marathon, said the hope is that some of the best practices can also be used by smaller events, like half marathons, 10Ks and 5Ks.

He said that many of the nation's top marathon executives have had unofficial meetings for years to discuss safety and other logistical issues, but there has been greater urgency since the 2013 Boston Marathon, when two explosions near the finish line killed three and injured 264 others.

''Things have been heightened - let's not kid ourselves,'' Ciaccia said.

Ciaccia said it's important for this week's conference to ''create a best practices document that would set a baseline - a living, breathing document that we can continually reference.''

Jim Estes, the USA Track and Field director of events, said that even though road race events can vary greatly in size, the hope is that the summit's results will help give race organizers the tools to help face a variety of challenges.

''We all took (the Boston bombings) personally,'' Estes said. ''But if there's a good thing that came out of it, it's that everyone is coming together. The community in Boston is obviously stronger for it. But the running industry is taking it seriously and doing the right things.''

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Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP

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