Nobody likes to think a disaster or act of violence could happen to them. Maybe you’ve never even considered that it might happen to your church. Disasters or acts of violence are difficult to foresee and prevent. Having a preparedness plan in place, along with regular review and training, may help mitigate some of the potential injury, death and property damage that can occur.
Although there are any number of incidents that can happen at a church, there are four major types of emergencies churches should try to prepare themselves for:
- Medical Assists
- Severe Weather Events
The term Medical Assist has pretty broad connotations, but for the purposes of emergency preparedness, we are talking about life-threatening medical situations. The biggest difference medical assist preparedness can make in churches is with cardiac arrest situations. Each year, approximately 200,000 Americans die from cardiac arrest. The American Red Cross estimates approximately 50,000 of these people could have been saved if CPR was immediately initiated and an Automatic External Defibrillator was deployed.
If you haven’t done so already, as a church organization you should consider investing in an Automatic External Defibrillator, otherwise known as an A.E.D. The approximate cost of an A.E.D. is around $2,000.
The training for the A.E.D. is minimal and can be incorporated with a CPR/First Aid course. Your church organization can host an AED/CPR/First Aid Course for the church membership and the surrounding community. Usually the costs for these courses are low and instructors from emergency services are readily available.
The church building should also have a fully-equipped medical bag for use in emergencies. Some ideas for useful items the medical bag could contain are:
- Diabetic glucose
- CPR masks
- Neck immobilizers
- Suction hand pumps
- Latex gloves
Give some thoughtful consideration as to the placement of the First Aid medical bag and the AED. You want them to be in an accessible location and yet somewhere that isn’t going to lend itself to tampering or playing with. Let’s not forget that our churches are full of children who are good kids, but have a curious nature.
It’s a good idea to assign one or two people the responsibility of regularly inspecting the First Aid medical bag to replace anything used or missing. They should also inspect the AED to make sure the battery is charged and ready to go.
Fire is a danger in any type of building, and churches are no exception. In fact, because most churches have a kitchen with ovens, microwaves, and toasters, they may be more susceptible to fire than the average building. Here are several areas of importance regarding fire protection:
- Smoke detection systems
- Fire extinguishers
- Escape routes
- Fire department access
- Power cutoff
If your church building was built within the last twenty years, it’s probably built with an integrated fire suppression system and smoke detection system. If you have an older building without integrated fire sprinklers and smoke detectors, perhaps you may consider installing at least the smoke detection component.
As with any equipment or plan of action, it’s important to have a regular schedule to check readiness. As suggested with the medical equipment, it’s a good idea to designate one or two people to regularly check fire detection and suppression equipment to make sure it’s operable.
Ensure the smoke detection system is operable by testing it on a monthly basis.
Ensure you have enough fire extinguishers strategically located throughout the building. Make sure they are of adequate size and regularly check them to see if they are sufficiently charged and ready for action.
Ensure escape routes are clear of obstructions and exits are not blocked. Some things that can lead to blocked exits are locks, snow that’s been piled up, and ice that has frozen shut doors seldom used in the winter.
In the event of a fire, learn how to cut electricity to the entire building from the exterior, if necessary. Can you do that by pulling a meter? If your building is supplied with natural gas for heating or appliances, find out if you have a main gas shut-off valve you can access. Being able to shut these things off could help mitigate damage or injury to people during a fire.
Make sure you have fire lane access to the church building even when the parking lot is full for a service or an event. The closer access the fire department has, the less hose they have to pull and fire suppression will be faster. It’s also good to know where the closest fire hydrant is so you can pass that information on to responding fire apparatus units.
As leadership of the church, you’ll need to work with your staff to develop an efficient evacuation plan for your building. Your plans should anticipate and encompass a crowded sanctuary, nursery and Sunday School rooms. Make plans that anticipate different areas of the church being cut off or difficult to access through normal routes. Example: If a fire starts in the kitchen, what areas of the church might be cut off? A fire or other danger could be approaching from different directions and you need to have flexibility or alternate ideas.
When formulating an evacuation plan, consider dividing a large group of people in the sanctuary by using something as simple as aisles. Train your ushers and elders in the plan and make sure these leaders can be authoritative and succeed with the task. It’s important to actually walk through the drill in a mock exercise so everyone understands their responsibilities.
Develop a plan for evacuating the elderly, handicapped or immobile people. It may work best to assign this responsibility to ushers or regular attendees. Demonstrate and practice the procedure of having two men rock an immobile person back in a chair and then carrying them out of harm’s way quickly and without discomfort.
Severe Weather Events–Storms
The primary severe weather events we need to be most concerned about in the Midwest are high wind events such as the straight-line winds that can occasionally cause structural damage to buildings and tornados.
If there is a tornado approaching, where in your church building can people go to take shelter? It may be appropriate to ask the architect, company or people who built your church building if there is any portion of the building that can be considered a shelter in a tornado event. Does the building have a basement or room with concrete walls? Are certain hallways between Sunday School rooms or bathrooms a place you can take shelter?
Example: My church building is built on a ground-level concrete slab with wood studded walls. It may offer little to no protection during a tornado.
Depending on availability of shelter in your building, the safest option may be the leadership taking into consideration the option of dismissing the function at the start of a tornado warning. It may be best to allow adult members of the congregation to make their own decision on finding appropriate shelter for themselves and their family.
How will you know if there’s a tornado warning announced during a Sunday service? We recommend that your church purchase a National Weather Service radio. The radio only costs $25-$30, so you could buy a couple of them. The radio can be programmed for specific geographic areas consistent with your church location. The radios should be placed where somebody would hear it if an alert was issued during a service or event. Some suggestions for placement would be the nursery or the church office. If a weather alert were issued, the church leadership should be notified immediately so they can make informed decisions.
Usually acts of violence fall into two basic categories.
The first category of violence would be the “unarmed/physical” category. This person is usually acting in the “heat of the moment” and hasn’t thought out their act of violence. Something has caused this person to explode and act-out physically in a hostile way. Although this person can be a danger to others, there is usually a possibility to escape and move away from the threat. If an assault occurs, it is usually not life threatening. Usually a group of motivated men can overcome and subdue this threat.
Armed with a Weapon
The second category of violence is the “armed with a weapon” category. Obviously this is a more serious and life-threatening situation. Although there is any number of objects that could be used as a weapon, for the purpose of this article we’ll focus on sharp-edged weapons, such as a knife, and firearms.
The sharp-edged weapon presents a life-threatening situation. However, the overall risk to the church congregation is limited. In order for the hostile person to use a sharp-edged weapon, they must be within arms-length of their victim(s). Therefore, the possibility to escape exists by moving away from the threat. There also is a possibility for multiple resistors to overcome the attacker. When overcoming the attacker, there is a good probability of injury to a resistor.
A hostile person armed with a firearm presents your greatest threat. These armed threats usually fall into two separate categories. The first category is related to an emotional response to something that’s happened to the suspect. He/she can be distraught or threatening and therefore is a danger to themselves as well as others around them. Think of all the possible situations that could lead to a person having a dramatic emotional response—divorce, child custody, loss of employment, an embarrassing public incident, etc. These triggering possibilities are very real and happen every day.
Attempt to evacuate everybody around him as quickly as possible and notify law enforcement. It may be he is only suicidal and the thought of harming someone else hasn’t occurred to him. However, when emotions are running high, a person with a gun has the potential to quickly become homicidal. If the subject is suicidal, do not provide him with potential hostages. Get everyone away from him as soon as possible. Do not try to counsel him until the scene is safe. Remember, he may turn homicidal at any moment and a firearm provides the mechanism to quickly carry out a homicidal thought.
If possible it is important to obtain a physical description of the subject and relay that information to responding law enforcement. What does the subject look like (height, weight, hair color, approximate age, clothing), what type of weapon does the subject have, what is the subject saying, where was the subject last seen? Remember; get all evacuees as far away from the armed subject as possible.
In this case, where nobody has been harmed yet by the armed subject, law enforcement will attempt to contain the armed person and negotiate with him in an attempt to have him put down the weapon and surrender himself.
Active Shooter Incidents
The last and most dangerous category involving a hostile person with a firearm is an active shooter situation. These armed subjects are motivated, calculating and usually carefully plan their acts of violence. An active shooter is usually a person who plans on committing suicide during their mission. They are seeking to make a “statement” through their actions and want to spread their suffering by inflicting massive damage. They also usually seek non-resisting targets and want to go out with a bang.
In the wake of the Columbine massacre, law enforcement has changed the way active shooter events are responded to. Previously we, the police would respond to the scene and contain the threat. We would wait for SWAT to arrive before going in and taking the active shooter(s) on and trying to stop them. Well, SWAT call-outs take approximately 45 minutes in the metro area and longer for areas outside the metro. In these situations, time is of the essence. The longer it takes for police to address the threat, the more people the shooter has the opportunity to kill. Now we plan and train for immediate entry and assault on the subject once there are two to four patrol officers on the scene. Our goal is to eliminate the threat and stop further harm, as quickly as possible.
Our current training teaches officers tactical formations and weapon usage for quickly moving to the threat and addressing it. We have also upgraded the weaponry we supply to our patrol officers. Squad cars are equipped with AR-15 rifles with optics for sights. Officers are now expected to go to the threat, placing themselves in immediate danger and eliminating the threat to protect the innocent.
Why Should a Church be Concerned?
Any place open to the public where a large number of people gather should be concerned and should make preparations to eliminate or reduce the risk. Churches can be especially susceptible to risk of an active shooter incident for the following reasons.
- There are a high number of potential targets in close proximity.
- A church may be viewed by the shooter as an ideal place to make a highly controversial statement.
- The shooter may have a hatred for Christianity.
- The shooter may have a hatred for Christians who appear to have their lives “together.”
- The likelihood that resistance will be low and people will not fight back.
Why Would Your Church be at Risk?
- Perhaps your church has taken a stance on a topic such as “Same Sex Marriage.”
- High level of firearm ownership in the region you live in.
- Your evangelical beliefs.
- Your climbing attendance.
Do you now believe there is a risk? This could happen at your church, too.
- March 7, 2009, Edwardsville, Illinois – 1 dead, 3 wounded
- December 12, 2008, Portland, Oregon – 1 dead
- November 24, 2008, Clifton, New Jersey – 1 dead, 2 wounded
- July 28, 2008, Knoxville Tennessee – 2 dead, 6 wounded
- January 8, 2008, Lehi, Utah – 1 dead
- December 10, 2007, Colorado Springs, Colorado – 6 dead (4 at missionary school, 2 in church parking lot)
- August 14, 2007, Neosho, Missouri – 3 dead, 5 wounded
- May 21, 2006, Baton Rouge, Louisiana – 5 dead, 1 wounded
- February 26, 2006, Detroit, Michigan – 2 dead
- March 14, 2005, Brookfield, Wisconsin – 7 dead, 4 wounded
- August 9, 2005, Atlanta, Georgia – 1 dead
- September 16, 1999, Fort Worth, Texas – 8 dead
Reducing Risk and Mitigating Damage
What can we do to reduce our risk or mitigate the damage? It’s important for the church leadership to form a reaction plan for emergencies. It’s also important to plan and practice an evacuation. If you haven’t thought about this before, you might want to start thinking about how you are going to get 200-plus people out of the sanctuary in a hurry. Who is going to help the elderly or the handicapped? What doors should you use? Does everyone know where the doors are?
One way you can start planning your evacuation process is to possibly divide the exit routes by seating areas. Train your elders, deacons and ushers on the evacuation plan so they can help provide leadership and direction. You can transfer and use the same evacuation plan for fire or severe weather events. I must warn you, however, that evacuation only somewhat limits the potential damage in an active shooter situation and that you, as a governing board, must determine the level of preparation within your church.
There are several ways of preparing in order to reduce risk or mitigate damage in an active shooter situation. Some of these options are extremely dangerous and can result in serious injury or death if attempted. However, if an active shooter situation is already occurring, you already have a life and death struggle taking place.
- Involves getting close enough to the shooter to remove the gun from his hands.
- High likelihood of injury or death
- Requires significant training
- Has a low likelihood of practicality
- Requires several people to act as a team; each going for one of the subject’s limbs, body and head.
- High likelihood of injury or death
- Low likelihood of success
- Requires some level of training
Having an Armed Member in Church
Church leadership could encourage active and retired law enforcement officers to attend the services and speak privately with them, encouraging them to carry their weapons (concealed) while attending. Federal law allows retirees to carry a firearm if they have passed a qualification course and carry their retired credentials. The advantage to having law enforcement officers carrying a concealed weapon in church is that they are properly trained and proficient in the use of the weapon. Law enforcement officers also understand the use of force parameters defined in the law and what is, or is not appropriate in the use of force.
One of the potential shortcomings of depending on active law enforcement officers is the fact that many times they are tied to shift work and, therefore, may not have consistent attendance. One of the shortcomings of depending on retired law enforcement officers is that they don’t receive the ongoing weapons training that active law enforcement officers do. Therefore, as a general rule, proficiency levels aren’t quite as high.
Another possible option for having an armed church member is a person with a concealed weapon permit. This possibility depends on each state’s laws regarding concealed weapon permits and the definitions limiting where permit holders can carry a weapon. It would be advisable for the church leadership to do some legal research before considering this option.
The concealed weapon permit option resolves shift work issues that come along with the law enforcement option, but it also can create some unintended issues. Compared to law enforcement in general, concealed weapon permit holders are not as proficient with their weapon as trained law enforcement officers are. Law enforcement officers are required to train regularly with their firearm and demonstrate proficiency. There is no such requirement of concealed weapon permit holders other than demonstrating some proficiency when they apply for their permit.
Law enforcement officers are trained in use of force issues which includes what is or isn’t an appropriate use of force response to a situation. This includes training and an understanding of the legal issues surrounding force-on-force response. Concealed weapon permit holders may receive some training on this issue when they apply for their permit, but it is not nearly as comprehensive as the law enforcement training.
Consider securing the exterior doors of your church during the service. You can assign a greeter to be at a secured main entry door to allow people in if they arrive late and to be an initial screener. Also provide the greeter with a phone for emergencies. Sometimes there may be something the greeter/screener detects; such as a person who’s acting suspiciously, an unusual bulge under a jacket or shirt or actually seeing a weapon. At least the secured door may slow the hostile person momentarily, allowing more people to escape to safety.
The key to successfully mitigating damage and possibly saving lives is being ready for an emergency before it happens. If you are part of the leadership of a church, you have an obligation to think ahead, plan for emergencies and make assignments. Your members are dependant on your wisdom and leadership to help them through these situations. Remember, during any type of emergency; activate emergency service providers through 911 immediately.