HARVARD -- Ambulance Director Steve Beckman, accompanied by Fire Chief Richard Sicard and Police Chief Edward Denmark, presented a proposal to the selectmen Tuesday night to hold a Public Safety Symposium in town aimed at framing a collaborative preparation and response plan for extraordinary incidents.

With the board's approval, the event was set for March 23.

Based on the premise that the town must prepare for the worst in terms of "effective response" to "tragic circumstances" with "mass casualties," Beckman told the board that the first plan was to schedule a regional drill with other emergency responders in the area.

But as his department considered the idea and he talked it over with Sicard and Denmark, Beckman said they came to a different conclusion. More preparation was needed before setting a date for a drill, or coming up with parameters for it, much less the particulars.

Seeking to educate himself, he widened the informational web, drawing into the conversation representatives of the various constituencies that would be involved in the kind of incidents that could call for specialized responses, such as hospital administrators and various public safety departments statewide.

Beckman said the question then becomes why are such extraordinary preparations necessary now? Recent history puts the issue in context, he said, citing local events such as a gas explosion in Springfield, a "white powder scare" in Bolton, possible gas exposure at a children's camp in Bolton that sickened several young campers and an accident off Interstate 495 that sent an 18-wheeler careening across Stow Road in Harvard.

Unexpected and terrible events can happen "anytime and anywhere," according to Beckman's prepared narrative, including attacks at schools and theaters that resulted in many deaths. This list cited shooting incidents across the nation and the world during 2012, including 26 people killed by a gunman at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, 20 of whom were children.

Based on the premise that "preparedness saves lives," the presentation went on to describe, "what we are doing in Harvard."

The ambulance service, police and fire departments and the public schools teamed up with the OEMS region II director and area hospital representatives to create a working group, ensuring "best practices in public safety and preparedness," Beckman explained.

The group has been meeting monthly since August to identify staff and community training needs and to address "potential large scale threats," he said. The next step would be joint training sessions to prefect skills, build good working relationships, test equipment and continually assess the ability of each agency to respond to a "mass casualty incident," Beckman continued. They share ideas and identify educational needs and opportunities and have talked about a large-scale drill to test response skills, equipment and inter-service cooperation in a mock mass casualty incident.

But Beckman said it became obvious at some point that the drill focus was off the mark. A more important question to ask was how to prepare and how to manage the aftermath of such an incident. How, for example, do the various responders - ambulance teams, for example -- keep track of casualties and where each individual has been transported.

Recently, in an exercise at the school, Beckman said scenarios were modeled, testing out possible settings, sights and sounds that emergency responders would be surrounded by as they tended to injured people and how those things were likely to affect them. It was not a subject that he knew much about, first hand.

Basically, that's the genesis of the symposium idea.

"I realized there are more experienced people out there" regionally and nationally, who could be "invited in," to share their experiences, Beckman said. When he did invite them, most said yes.

He said it would cost about $10,000 to pay travel expenses for the half dozen people on his speaker's list and to put them up at hotels. They've agreed to front those expenses and forgo speaking fees, he said.

Beckman said he expects to make it all back and then some via on-line registration for the symposium, at $75 per person, with discount rates for town officials and others.

The symposium will be held at Cronin auditorium. Chef Paul has agreed to cater the event, with lunch provided for $10 per person.

The speakers are school and public safety officials who were at the heart of "mass casualty incidents" with multiple fatalities, shooting incidents that made national headlines and devastated communities, including the principal of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., a police psychologist from Denver and the sheriff and incident commanders from Chardon, Ohio, as well as the superintendent of the Chardon Public Schools.