How to Evaluate Your House of Worship Safety and Security in Six Easy Steps (Part One)

by | Facilities, Security

Introduction

In 1964, folk singer Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin.” His assessment has never been more compelling. Active shooter threats are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated, and Houses of Worship (HoW) have not escaped the violence. The National Institute of Mental Health has declared the mental health crisis in America as an “epidemic”; social media has become more vulgar; teen suicide rates are up; new ideologies are challenging the very assumptions of our culture; and politics have become more divided, with few apparent prospects for reconciliation. And as if this isn’t enough, we have not yet fully recovered from the economic, social, cultural, educational, and political impacts of the COVID pandemic.

Despite the above, our congregants expect their HoW to be welcoming and safe, a place where one can grow in his or her relationship with God, nurtured by the fellowship and encouragement of other believers. This expectation places a premium on the provision of an environment that is both secure and safe. Specifically, it is secure from threats of violence but it must also be safe because threats such as severe weather, medical emergencies, fire, suspicious packages, disruptive individuals, etc., are more likely, though less sensational.

The existence of multiple threats and hazards makes it incumbent upon HoW leaders to provide effective security that can prevent, respond to, mitigate, and recover from these dangerous and potentially life-threatening events. 

Everyone supports security, but this broad endorsement is not sufficient because hope is not a strategy! In order to exercise due diligence, HoW officials must consider, at a minimum, the following questions:

  • Are plans in place that address the range of potential safety and security threats, and are they current?
  • Can the HoW prevent, respond to, mitigate and recover from the range of safety and security threats, and how is readiness determined and assessed?
  • Where plans and capabilities are deficient, what should officials do, and what should they do first?

How to Evaluate HoW Security

Here is a six-step assessment methodology that can help determine HoW readiness by identifying deficiencies and prioritizing corrective actions. 

Step One: Identify and prioritize safety and security goals.

In the absence of random choice, rational decision-making must be purposeful and, therefore, based on specific goals. The problems confronted by HoW officials are perhaps the most challenging aspect of security planning. Following are six points to keep in mind when making these goals.

First, how are safety and security defined and what are their criteria and standards?

Second, goals like “prevent violence” and “keep people safe” lack the specificity to guide planning.

Third, different stakeholders have different goals. For instance, a pastor may emphasize the welcoming nature of the church while the security manager will want to emphasize scrutiny and surveillance, which are hardly welcoming behaviors.

Fourth, the goals of various stakeholders are likely to change in priority and emphasis over the course of an event. In the active shooter prevention phase, for instance, security team members will emphasize technical (i.e., cameras) and personal monitoring and intelligence gathering. Evacuation and traffic control (among other behaviors and responsibilities) become key priorities in the response phase; first aid, tourniquet application, and interviewing victims become important in the mitigation phase; and the return of abandoned property, identifying lessons learned, and replacing lost or acquiring new equipment in the recovery phase. Just as security priorities change, so are the priorities of pastors, deacons, youth ministers, HoW trustees, congregants, students, etc. are also likely to change. It is naïve not to recognize these priorities are not only different; they are likely to clash and result in suboptimum performance. For this reason, it’s crucial for the various HoW stakeholders to develop a consensus on the overall priority of goals. 

The identification of goals is further complicated when internal HoW stakeholders’ goals are juxtaposed with those of police, fire and medical response personnel.

Fifth, changing goals in response to a changing environment involves a leap into the unknown and is therefore often resisted by those who are risk-averse, because they’re comfortable with the status quo or responsible for marshalling scarce resources.

Sixth, responses to similar threats will differ between various HoW based on their size, experiences, resources, and the availability of external assistance. As a result, Peter cannot always take a lesson from Paul.

Finally, some goals precede others temporally and some have a causal impact upon others. This last fact implies that some corrective actions will have to occur before others.

As noted above, safety and security are not so much goals as they are results of purposive actions, and these goals exist alongside others, which may lesson their effectiveness and priority. Here is a list of goals HoW officials must address:

  • Sustain a welcoming atmosphere
  • Meet members’ spiritual needs
  • Make members feel safe and secure
  • Avoid liability
  • Encourage giving
  • Practice good financial stewardship
  • Support ministries and missionaries
  • Encourage spiritual and (possibly) academic growth of youth
  • Deter/respond to concerning behavior
  • Outreach to grow membership and win souls
  • Elevate HoW brand.

These goals, as noted above, are temporally and/or causally related.  For instance, avoiding liability is dependent upon other initiatives, such as the ability to deter/respond to threats, which must precede it. Similarly, outreach generally precedes growth and brand elevation. Planners should develop a time-phased flowchart of which goals affect others.

Step 2: Identify resources associated with the achievement of each goal.

If the goals above are considered “outputs”, then the resources (i.e., inputs) needed to achieve them must be identified. In certain types of military planning, inputs are grouped into one of five categories: personnel, procedures and plans, facilities, equipment, and communications. These inputs are independent of a HoW’s size, experiences, etc.; they are what is needed to achieve the goals.

A comprehensive assessment will consider 100-150 resources. Here is a subset of 49 inputs residing in the five categories:

Personnel (13)

  • Size of the congregation
  • Distribution of ages
  • Homogeneity of congregation
  • Number of members on security team
  • Existence of professional security experience (e.g., law enforcement, fire/rescue)
  • Regular meetings to train security team members
  • Training budget
  • Stable team membership/continuity of team members
  • Participation of pastor and other ministries in security meetings
  • Joint training with local responders
  • Language, mental health, first aid and other capabilities/skills of team members
  • Congregants are trained on how to respond
  • Background checks for officials working with children

Procedures and plans (13)

  • Security is focused inward and outward
  • Addresses all hazards, not just active shooters
  • Security team members have assigned tasks
  • Evacuation plans are specified and practiced
  • Walk-throughs are conducted with external responders
  • Duress codes are specified
  • Table-top/command post exercises are conducted with internal and external officials
  • Plans are consistent with insurance requirements
  • Plans are documented and reviewed periodically
  • Periodic equipment checks are conducted
  • Best practices and lessons learned of other HoW are reviewed and incorporated
  • Evacuation plans for inclement weather
  • Traffic control plans

Facilities (for all buildings on campus) (7)

  • Alarms for doors and windows
  • Electronic locks
  • Internal shelter locations are specified
  • Location is close to local police and fire/rescue
  • Locks can be activated remotely
  • HoW is locked during services and other activities
  • Doors can be locked remotely

Equipment (11)

  • Signage for shelters and evacuation routes
  • Response cards are located in pews
  • AEDs on each floor
  • First aid kits
  • Tourniquets
  • Bullhorns
  • Camera surveillance system monitored in real time
  • Safes for collections
  • Wheelchairs
  • Blankets 
  • Flashlights 

Communications (5)

  • Security information on website
  • Internal announcement system
  • Crisis communications with local responders
  • Remote alarm notification
  • Newsletter for congregants

Next week, watch for Steps 3-6!

About the author

Dr. John Weinstein is a retired senior law enforcement commander with over 40 years of public service. He is a national and international lecturer and has published more than 50 articles on various safety and security topics in professional journals and publications. He is currently a Principal with Dusseau Solutions. For more information about Dusseau Solutions, go to www.dusseau-solutions.com.

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