How to Protect your Place of Worship

by | Worship Facility Update

By Bob Jensen

Today’s headlines continue to bring shocking coverage of mass shootings from across the nation. On May 24th an attack at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas left 20 children and 2 teachers dead and 17 more injured. This horrific event is just one of more than two hundred eighty mass shootings so far in 2022 according to the Gun Violence Archive. These can occur anywhere – at schools, at businesses, and homes.  Even places of worship are not immune from these attacks.

What can faith leaders and their communities do to protect their members, their places of worship and their sense of security as incidents of violence against religious sites increase and evolve?  

First, understand and accept that any place of worship, even yours, has some risk of being attacked.  Take the threat seriously and gather information on how to plan and prepare. But where to begin?

A great resource to start with is the security guide entitled “Mitigating Attacks on Houses of Worship” released in December 2020 by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which is a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  

The guide and many supporting resources are available online at Mitigating Attacks on Houses of Worship Security Guide | CISA.

In developing the guidelines, CISA looked at 37 attacks on houses of worship that occurred from 2009 to 2019.  They analyzed the perpetrators, their motives, their tactics and specific areas of vulnerability at houses of worship to come up with a security framework that any organization can adopt. 

According to the guide, “the best way to mitigate a potential attack is to take a holistic approach to security” and do this “by adopting a comprehensive and multi-layered security strategy”.

Viewing the security of your place of worship in a holistic manner means to look at all the many aspects of it, including the physical facilities, the types of activities held there (and elsewhere), and the needs of the community.  All of these aspects require some measure of protection and security. To know how much and what type of security there needs to be it is essential to understand and be aware of the threats and risks to your place of worship and to identify any vulnerabilities.

The guide provides an introduction to key concepts and terms and directs readers to additional resources developed specifically for Faith-based organizations, including an online Security Self-Assessment for Houses of Worship. This self-assessment covers everything from the perimeters, entry points, parking lots, and outsides of facilities as well as key areas inside the facilities and what security/surveillance systems are in place.

Next the guide walks through the Security Framework for Houses of Worship. The framework covers the Security and Safety Teams which support a Security Coordinator, who is responsible for directing the development and implementation of a security strategy for the place of worship. Clear roles and responsibilities should be laid out for each part of this element. 

As part of the Framework, the members of the Security and Safety Teams help the Security Coordinator develop a set of security plans that are based on assessments about the threats, risks and vulnerabilities to the place of worship and its community. A whole chapter of the guide is dedicated to explaining the key aspects of the vulnerability assessment. 

There are many types of plans that should be developed, and these can be tailored to the specific vulnerabilities of the organization.  The plans could include an Emergency Action Plan, an Active Shooter Plan, a Business Continuity Plan and others. There is no one size fits all solution here. The guide points out that “planning and assessment go hand-in-hand” and all plans and efforts should be reviewed and updated regularly.

Implementing the security strategy follows and the guide describes the importance of building community readiness and resilience for the organization’s community members. Policies, programs, and best practices to consider are covered that can improve the overall security posture and how every member of the community has a role to play. Building strategic partnerships with first responders such as law enforcement and fire and medical services is stressed and how the organization can better engage with them to increase preparedness, safety, and security levels.

Other chapters of the guide cover additional parts of the framework including protecting facilities, daycare and school safety considerations, and a primer on cybersecurity for places of worship. These chapters round out the key elements of a holistic security strategy that has comprehensive and multiple layers.  

Additionally, there is an excellent appendix that provides a broad spectrum of online resources from DHS, CISA and other agencies.

About the Author

Bob Jensen advises and consults with nations and corporations on crisis, emergency and disaster risk management. Bob led the U.S. Government’s on the ground crisis communications efforts after the massive earthquake in Haiti, for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response and 30+ major U.S. disasters including Hurricane Sandy. He served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security, as a spokesman for the White House National Security Council and serves on the ZeroNow Advisory Council. 

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