Mitigating Attacks on Houses of Worship Part 4: Building Community Readiness and Resilience

by | Jun 9, 2022 | Worship Facilities Update

In the previous installment of this series we discussed how to do a comprehensive vulnerability assessment to determine in which ways your church and its assets – from the building to data, finances, and staff – are at risk of attack. With this concluding chapter we will look at how your church and members of the greater community around it can work together to be ready in the event of an attack, and keep going should one occur.

Prevention is best

The adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” definitely applies to safety. It’s much better to prevent problems from happening than to recover after they do occur. Thankfully prevention can be fairly easy. It’s just a matter of building a culture of safety and responsibility.


Community
Churches touch many lives and everyone—from clergy, staff, and volunteers, to congregants and visitors—has a role
to play when it comes to safety. The overall objective is to create an environment in which both leaders and members are alert to potential threats or problems, are aware of the proper channels for reporting, and know what to do in an emergency. Routine trainings and drills are often the best way to reinforce those lessons—and save lives. Every school in the United States performs fire drills, as do many businesses. There’s no reason why your church, which may also have a school, shouldn’t do drills for fire and other safety issues. The following programs and initiatives will help prepare your community for a range of scenarios and are intended for the church as a whole.


Building a Culture of Safety
By their very nature, churches are built around a shared system of values. To improve security, they need to maintain an organizational culture based around a shared system of values and goals for safety. Your church’s leadership can guide members to embrace these shared values by:
• Aligning security goals with your core values and providing consistent messaging about safety and security protocols as a shared community value
• Establishing community expectations related to safety and security and actively facilitating communication, transparency, and responsiveness
• Implementing a clear information sharing process that empowers community members to report incidents and/or concerning behavior, while providing timely feedback after assessing a report and ensuring that confidentiality is
maintained
• Providing training. This can be done either internally or with use of outside sources. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) has online resources as well as Protective Security Advisors (PSAs) who offer ongoing learning opportunities on a regular basis
• Documenting all security protocols in written policies and guidelines and ensuring they are shared with the community early and often.

Awareness and Early Identification
To meet or alleviate a threat, you must be aware of it. Engaging community members in early identification and reporting is critical. The practice of “If you see something, say something” is simple but effective. Your members need to be alert for suspicious activity and report it through the appropriate channels. The key is to be vigilant in every way, from online conversations and posts to noting unusual objects around church grounds or activity in the community.

Power of Hello
CISA recommends that churches implement a robust greeting program as a key component of their overall security strategy.
Used effectively, the right words can be a powerful tool. Simply saying “Hello” can prompt a casual conversation with unknown individuals, help you determine why they are visiting your church, and whether they present a threat. This method is again quite simple and has been in use by retail establishments for decades. While security cameras and even assigned security staff may seem like necessary steps – and perhaps they are, needs vary by church – a powerful tool that works everywhere is politely engaging individuals with “Hello.”

According to CISA, the OHNO approach (Observe, Initiate a hello, Navigate the risk, Obtain help) helps church members observe and evaluate suspicious activity and obtain help when necessary. For each member this approach includes:
OBSERVE. Identify suspicious behavior, such as taking pictures or videos of facilities or security features, using abusive language that a reasonable person might find threatening, or loitering at a location without a reasonable explanation.
INITIATE A HELLO: Engage individuals you observe in your space.
NAVIGATE THE RISK: Ask yourself if the behavior you observe is threatening or suspicious.
OBTAIN HELP: If you believe the individual presents a real threat, don’t intervene. Obtain help from church leadership or law enforcement. Always call 9-1-1 for emergencies.

Run, Hide, Fight
Sadly, sometimes early detection isn’t enough to prevent an incident. It’s crucial for churches to teach their members how to respond in the event of an attack. Active assailant situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Some attacks are over before law enforcement arrives on the scene, so individuals must be prepared both mentally and physically to respond to the situation.

In the event of an armed assailant, such as an active shooter, CISA encourages citizens anywhere, not just at houses of worship to consider whether to run, hide, or fight. This involves quickly assessing the situation and determining the most reasonable way to protect your life given your location and circumstances.

  1. RUN: If there is an accessible escape path, attempt to evacuate the premises.
    › Have an escape route and plan in mind
    › Leave your belongings behind
    › Keep your hands visible and follow any instructions provided by law enforcement
  2. HIDE: If evacuation isn’t possible, find a place to hide.
    › Hide in an area out of the shooter’s view
    › Block entry to your hiding place and lock the doors
    › Silence your cell phone (including vibrate mode)
    › Remain silent
  3. FIGHT: As a last resort, and only when your life is in danger, attempt to disrupt and/or incapacitate the attacker.
    › Act with as much physical aggression as possible
    › Improvise weapons or throw items at the attacker
    › Fully commit to your actions . . . your life depends on it.

Engaging the Wider Community
Churches play a vital role in community relationships. That role can be a source of strength as you work to improve security. Some houses of worship serve as meeting places for civic groups and support groups, event spaces, entertainment venues, election polling places, and community shelters. You may also strive to make meaningful connections with neighbors and other houses of worship in the community, including other faiths and denominations. Don’t forget that attacks have occurred against houses of worship of every faith, in every region of the country. The issue isn’t that churches can be stronger together, it’s that they will only be stronger together.


Event Planning
Certain types of events can increase risk. Security considerations related to community engagement and event planning should include:

  • Identify and continuously evaluate vulnerabilities and potential risks during non-worship activities and enhance security procedures as needed
  • Consider whether to incorporate screening procedures to prevent prohibited items during special events
  • Manage visitors and control the number of people in attendance for special events with tickets or sign-up sheets
  • Consider reaching out to local law enforcement partners to help with security planning for major events such as religious holidays or whenever you anticipate large gatherings

Community engagement
There are several other simple steps churches can take to engage with their communities that will also help identify potential threats and prevent attacks. These include:

  • Creating a shared, private social media or other communication space for collaboration with other houses of worship in your area to centralize information-sharing
  • Identifying credible threats from peer-to-peer communications, shared information, online activity, and social media, and reporting to law enforcement as appropriate
  • Tracking and reporting recent threats that emerge online
  • Coordinating an event in your community to encourage community preparation and resilience.

As noted earlier, there are many technological tools that can aid security, from cameras to metal detectors, and some or all of them may be a good fit for your facility. We’ll explore many of those tools in an upcoming series on church safety and security beginning next week. However, human behavior, interpersonal relationships, and community values have an enormous impact on threat prevention, preparedness, and mitigation programs, and they fit every budget and every community.

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