Security for Worship Houses

This month we’ve gone to an industry expert for their assessment of how to secure houses of worship. Frank Santamorena PSP and principal of Security Experts, Rhinebeck, N.Y., had this to say:

Harlick: How would a dealer / installer / integrator approach a house of worship to do their security installation / upgrade? Who should they be trying to see when they make that call?
Santamorena: Of the upmost importance, make certain that you call it a “House of Worship” so as not to offend anyone by calling it a religious center. The easiest way to start is to grab the weekly “Liturgical Publication”. This usually gives a contact person or board members names and phone numbers. If you belong to a worship organization, approach a board member and ask who handles the security. If you’re not practicing and/or have no affiliation with a house of worship, then just stop into the administration offices during the week and ask for information on who to call.  You’ll find that these folks are helpful and a great resource. Once you have this information, try and be of service; what I mean by this is give back.  Ask the worship center if they would like a complimentary security survey to identify some of their security shortfalls, or risks. Houses of Worship have been notoriously lax about crime security. They rarely use alarm systems. They don’t use proper security measures to know if a building is secure. Security is more than installing electronic equipment and components.  By identifying potential security flaws, you will bring credibility, and in the same time, do something very good. 

Harlick: What should one look for when securing this facility? 
Santamorena: Criminals don’t like to work too hard — any delay increases their chance of getting caught. Start by making unauthorized entrances as inconvenient as possible by keeping doors and windows locked when your building is vacant. Your outside doors should be solid core, metal or wood and should have deadbolt locks with a 1-inch throw and non-removable hinges. Basement window wells or ground level windows should be protected. Trim shrubbery and trees so there are fewer places to hide and so a passersby can see the building more clearly. Ladders shouldn’t be left near the building, giving intruders an easy access to upper floors. If you have fencing, make sure it is the wire-mesh type, preventing access while still providing good visibility. Cover your stained glass windows with Lexan, Plexiglas or some other form of protection. Parking lots should be regularly patrolled to avoid car burglary. Make sure sides and entrances are lit and your grounds and parking areas have adequate security lighting. Security lights with automatic timers are best, supplemented with motion detecting lights. Remember to close curtains or blinds at night, so they are out of sight. It’s also a good idea to keep some interior lights on timers. Finally, ask your local police to regularly patrol your area and grounds.

Harlick: Should a facility like this be viewed any differently than a commercial structure?
Santamorena: I don’t believe so. Most burglaries — including those in houses of worship — are crimes of convenience committed by amateurs. By not presenting a tempting target you can prevent a large percentage of these crimes. You should always know who has access to your building. Newer technology can help safeguard people and buildings as well. Things like keypads and electronic card systems can limit access to specific areas of buildings and can record who comes and goes at all times. Another common problem is embezzlement. Do a background check of anyone who will be involved with finances, as well as people in other important positions. All of these security implementations that we use in Worship Centers are generally used in commercial/industrial applications.

Harlick: How do you even begin to secure the facility against people that could disrupt a service or even what we’ve seen in the news lately, church shootings? Are armed volunteer or paid guards the way to go these days?
Santamorena: Violent acts and incidents of terrorism are impossible to predict or prevent. The panic and pandemonium that follow an incident makes rational response even harder. You can’t rely on your instincts in these situations — instincts are often wrong. Many people just freeze. The one thing you can do is establish an incident response protocol so as to know what you would do if an incident occurs. The components of your protocol should include: A procedure for evacuation or lockdown: Routes and meeting places should be established: First Aid: Who is trained to provide it?  You should have a communication procedure. Something as simple as who places the call to 911? Then, who alerts your staff and your members? How do you alert them? And who would handle media inquiries? Talk to any emergency responders in your area; see if your local police department has a Special Weapons or Tactics Unit — a SWAT team. Depending on the geographical location, having an armed volunteer or paid guard should be determined by the Board of Directors at the Worship Center.  These are personal decisions and should be discussed for the safety and security of the members of that Worship Center.

Harlick: Is there a specific time of year when these facilities are more vulnerable than others?
Santamorena: We are creatures of habit. Our bills lie in the kitchen; our keys placed close to the door; our personal possessions and jewelry stored in our dresser drawers. Because these are the things for the most part we take for granted, during the holidays worship centers are just as vulnerable if not more likely to experience a crime for several reasons; money, money, money. Be it Passover or Easter, Hanukah, Kwanza, Christmas, or Festivus-whatever you call it, there is more money lying around. People become very generous in the season to be merry; and then there are those who have less, and are looking for more. 

Harlick: Why should they approach this type of facility? 
Santamorena: Sure, the sale is wonderful but it is the “feel good” factor in our hearts and souls that is the ultimate goal. Helping others and not looking for something in return has rewards far beyond what I am able to articulate with words.

Frank Santamorena PSP is the Principal of Security Experts, a security consulting and systems design firm. Board Certified as a Physical Security Professional with more than 20 years of experience working in all phases of physical building security, he has worked with clients to recognize critical security issues, architecting and designing customized solutions and ensuring client satisfaction. He demonstrates specific expertise in designing comprehensive solutions integrating security/access control, CCTV, visitor management systems, turnstiles, elevator destination dispatch systems, and building automation systems.