HARVARD -- No one wants to think about it happening in their town, in their school. It always happens somewhere else. New of school shootings -- Columbine, Chardon, Sandy Hook -- comes almost instantaneiously and people's hearts go out to those schools and communities as they hold prayer vigils and send support.
Every school and town across America wants to be as prepared as possible should a mass casualty incident occur. It takes the skill and cooperation of school administration and teachers with local town fire, police and EMS to handle such a catastrophic event.
Harvard is one of only two towns in the commonwealth to offer an EMT cadet program, through a special waiver from the Massachusetts Office of Emergency Medical Services. Before graduating from the Bromfield School, Ben Wilmot was selected for the program and trained with the Harvard Ambulance Service. Wilmot had an idea back in August to plan a large-scale safety drill in Harvard. He spoke with Jill Reiter, EMT and assistant director for human resources for Harvard Ambulance Service. Wilmot went off to college and is now on the University of Vermont's Rescue Service, and Reiter is helping his concept come to fruition.
It started in September with monthly Drill Committee meetings involving cross-training between the Town's various departments -- police, fire, ambulance and schools. The six members of the committee include Police Chief Ed Denmark; Fire Chief Rick Sicard; Harvard Ambulance Services Director Steve Beckman; Jill Reiter, Ed McNamara, Region II (Central MA) director, Emergency Medical Services; and Colleen Nigzus, nurse leader at Harvard Public Schools.
On Halloween, the committee attended an Active Shooter Preparation and Response Workshop put on by the FBI Boston Citizens' Academy Alumni Association at the Boston Convention Center. The goal of the inaugural workshop was to provide attendees with the insights and resources to prevent or manage an active shooter threat event.
"One key message that came out of this workshop was to let someone know if they are concerned with something," Nigzus said. "After every shooting, there were indicators. Something someone said, or posted online. Someone who was depressed or angry."
In January, Harvard Ambulance Service hosted a Trauma and Combat Casualty Training that dealt with emergencies in the field and what to do if somebody is shot. Denmark was a co-presenter with Dr. Allan Kuong. The schools also had a lockdown drill and Denmark spoke to the students in an assembly beforehand, telling students to let a trusted adult know if they are concerned about someone.
In March, the Drill Committee had a firearms training hosted by Detective Greg Newman, Dispatcher Pat Natoli and EMT/Firefighter Andrew Perry. During this training the Committee learned what shells look like, how to find and treat various wounds and more about firearms specific to EMS.
Jill Reiter is a Harvard EMT and transplant from Colorado. She is also a licensed independent clinical social worker who helped after the Columbine shootings by giving debriefings in the schools for staff, parents and students. Now Reiter feels at home in Harvard and wants to bring her knowledge and resources to help keep this small community safe.
After several Drill Committee meetings, there was a consensus to invite the EMTs and school administrators from Colorado to watch the drill in Harvard and offer feedback. Then the idea evolved, and the Committee decided to first hear the information and then design their drill. They also decided this information would be invaluable to surrounding communities, and thus, the Harvard Safety Symposium was created, open to all towns. Already the event has garnered registrants from western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and all across New England.
"The symposium is about how these school and safety leaders handled school shootings," said Nigzus. "It will offer insight into how we may prepare for them, how we can try to prevent them, and God forbid if it happens in our community, how we handle it during an incident."
The Harvard Safety Symposium will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, March 23, at the Bromfield School's Cronin Auditorium. Due to the sensitive nature of the material being shown and discussed, this full-day conference is not open to the general public. It is intended for emergency services/EMTs, law enforcement, fire and police departments, and school personnel -- administrators, teachers, nurses, psychologists and guidance counselors.
The symposium will feature lessons learned and insight into mass casualty incidents such as the Columbine High School and Chardon High School shootings and the Platte Canyon hostage cricis. Nationally-renowned speakers include Frank Deangelis, principal of Columbine High School, who will give a rare and candid presentation on the 1999 tragedy. Dr. Madeleine Biondolillo, the bureau director of Health Care Safety and Quality at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health will present.
John-Michael Keyes, whose daughter Emily was killed in the Platte Canyon High School shooting is a featured speaker. He is executive director of the "I love you guys" Foundation; these were the last words Emily texted her parents. Presenter John Nicoletti is a forensic psychologist who was on scene at the Columbine shooting, the Aurora movie theater shooting and the Platte Canyon shooting. Joe Bergant, the superintendent of Chardon Public Schools, will talk about the school's perspective.
"I think we have become a really progressive service here and I'm so proud of everybody," said Reiter. "We are all volunteers, putting so much time and energy into this; I think it's going to be an amazing day for everyone."
To register for the Harvard Safety Symposium, go to www.harvardsafetysymposium.com.