According to Church Tax and Law, the number of violent incidents that took place on the properties of churches and faith-based organizations nationwide increased last year, as did the number of deaths resulting from those incidents. 2017 was the most violent year for faith-based organizations in American history. That statement was true long before the November 2017 attack on a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The most violent years prior to 2017 (as measured by total deaths) were 2015 (77 deaths), 2012 (76 deaths), and 2014 (74 deaths). Without the inclusion of Sutherland Springs, 2017 had an astounding 92 violent deaths (118 including Sutherland Springs).
How Secure Are We?
Consider your church: Is there an emergency and crisis plan in place? Are leadership, ushers, and greeters trained in crisis prevention and response? Do we train our ushers and greeters on how to respond to persons behaving suspiciously? Do we conduct regular evacuation and emergency response training? Have we identified key medical and law enforcement professionals in our congregation? Are there a sufficient number of first aid kits available in key areas? Is there quick access to phones at all times in key locations? Are exit routes clearly marked? Are buildings equipped with lighting, security cameras, and lock-down areas?
These are just a few of the things you want to think through to keep your church safe. If you could use some help, here are my suggestions:
1. Develop a Plan
Creating a violence response plan involves assessing your individual situation, determining how to respond, and practicing what to do if it happens.
2. Form a Team to Assess Risks
You’ll need more than one person to help plan for a crisis event. Enlist a broad cross-section of people, including staff, volunteers, church members, first responders, and police community service officers to contribute their expertise to the plan. Have your team determine where your ministry is vulnerable.
3. Determine Your Response
After listing your vulnerabilities, determine how you will deal with them. Keep in mind that the response on a Sunday morning might differ drastically from what you would do on a weekday morning.
4. Improve Building Security
Security equipment that could help prevent or reduce the impact of violent situations is key. Consider modifying your building so that it can be locked in zones to provide secure havens for the people inside.
For example, allowing visitors access to a lobby area while the office suite and remainder of the building are securely locked provides time to determine a visitor’s intentions before allowing access to other parts of the facility. Placing the nursery and Sunday school areas behind a set of security doors allows teachers to quickly secure the area without evacuating the children.
Video cameras could record information crucial for apprehending and prosecuting a suspect. In addition, you might install a panic button or silent alarm that locks doors and/ or alerts authorities to an emergency situation.
5. Utilize Layers of Security
Driveway/Traffic control – Parking lot greeters – Door greeters – Interior building greeters – Ushers – Inside plain-clothes security personnel. It is better to identify a potential threat outside the building. The earlier the better. Train volunteers how to recognize suspicious behavior and to report it.
6. Establish Protocol
Your church may already have a plan in place for dealing with fire or weather emergencies. In many cases, you can modify that plan to deal with incidents of violence in your congregation. Here are some aspects to consider:
Communication: If you have a large church, how will you communicate that there’s a threat on the other side of the building and that people need to evacuate? Solutions might include using a public address system or two-way radios. In addition, someone needs to quickly notify law enforcement and deal with a possibly overwhelming response from people concerned about the situation, including friends, family members, the community, and the media.
Evacuation: How will people leave the building and where do they go afterward? Determine escape routes, designate where people should meet after evacuating, and assign people to make sure that everyone gets out. Have a buddy system for people with disabilities. Post evacuation routes and procedures throughout the building.
Responsibilities: Who will do what? Create a list (wallet size, if possible) of all persons on and off-site that would be involved in responding to a crisis of this nature. Note their responsibilities and their 24-hour telephone numbers. Assign someone to keep this information up to date.
First aid: How will you treat the injured? Buy a commercial first-aid kit and keep it stocked. Train key volunteers and staff in first aid and CPR procedures.
Training: How will you ensure that everyone knows what to do in a crisis situation? Regularly provide general training to make sure that new people know what to do and experienced people remember their roles. Remember to update responsibilities as church membership changes.
7. Coordinate With Others.
Talk with first responders, emergency managers, community organizations, and others about how you can prepare for violent incidents and respond to them. Your local police department’s Special Response Team (SRT) or Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit may have a response plan that it would be willing to share.
In addition, the school system may be able to recommend some safety experts who have conducted training workshops in your area. Be sure that the expert you choose comes with proper credentials and has experience working with churches. Ask other churches about their crisis response plans, and encourage them to start continuity planning, if they haven’t already. Offer to help them, if you can.
8. Conduct Practice Drills.
Regularly review and practice what you intend to do during and after an emergency with drills and exercises. Ask someone from an emergency response agency to observe the drill and offer advice for improvement. Repeated practice helps people remember their roles and remain calm during an actual crisis. Drills can also identify problems in your response plan that could be prevented.
9. Inform the Congregation
Your staff and volunteers aren’t the only ones who need to know what to do during an emergency. If someone with a weapon appears in the sanctuary, people will panic. They need to know that the protocol is for everyone to find emergency exits and escape as quickly as possible.
Parents will instinctively want to retrieve children from other parts of the building, but this can result in chaos and delay. Consider practicing a drill immediately after a worship service or find another way to inform the congregation about your emergency procedures.
You could use an announcement period or discussion time to outline the evacuation plan, point out the emergency exits, and explain the procedures for protecting children in the nursery and Sunday school classrooms.
Other ways of informing your congregation about emergency policies include the church bulletin, visitor packets, and handouts for parents when they drop off children in the nursery. Regular reminders will be necessary since memories fail and attendees come and go.
10. Review Your Plan Annually
Just as your ministry changes over time, so do your preparedness needs. When you hire new employees, launch new ministry initiatives, or expand your building, you should update your plans and inform your staff, volunteers, and congregation.