Developing a security plan for houses of worship

June 24, 2015
Lack of training drills and demographically diverse populations intensify need for viable alternatives

In 2013, spurred by the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook, the federal government released three safety guidebooks for K-12 schools, college campuses and houses of worship. While the first two settings, unfortunately, generate the majority of crisis scenarios and media coverage, houses of worship represent a departure as highlighted by this emergency operations planning guide from FEMA.

 Typically devoid of the same security measures deployed in school campus settings, houses of worship have faced similar instances of active shooter situations. As a result, developing security and response protocols for these areas – especially large and multi-building worship campuses – has become a point of focus for church leaders. FEMA’s Guide for Developing High Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship states, “Rapid notification of a threat can save lives by keeping people out of harm’s way.” To combat the unique security challenges faced by large houses of worship, some leaders have turned to the use of Rapid Emergency Response Systems (RERS) to build a security program that best suits their differing needs.

Across the country, schools have taken serious steps to re-evaluate security protocols and systems due to the increase in active shooter situations. In many cases, advanced video surveillance systems, access control procedures and trained security personnel are the steps taken to shore up emergency response protocols. Indeed, these steps are important, but, compared to school campuses, houses of worship face different and unique challenges in developing security measures.

The demographics in churches range in age – from toddlers to seniors – and in operational responsibility – from volunteers available on an ad-hoc basis to paid staff on-site daily. Developing security measures to fit these varying groups requires creative thinking and an understanding of the needs of the church. For security professionals, there are two distinct scenarios to account for when working with church leaders. First is during the week, when the church is not full. Unlike school campuses, which are packed with students and faculty during the work week, houses of worship typically have a small number of personnel during this time period. With this in mind, the strategic development of emergency plans requires that the paid staff in the building on a daily basis bear the greatest amount of responsibility during crisis situations. Contrarily, houses of worship see the greatest percentage of use during the weekends (typically Sunday) and various evenings, where school campuses are usually empty. During the week, with a low expectation of frequent comings and goings, some churches have deployed access control measures, allowing only certain personnel entry during designated times. Obviously, during high usage times like these, access control safety tactics are impractical and uninviting. To avoid this scenario, other houses of worship have turned toward new RERS security technology for comprehensive emergency response.

RERS are similar to the red fire alarm pull stations seen in nearly every building across the country, except rather than contacting fire responders, it notifies law enforcement instead. In addition to fixed pull stations, some RERS add wearable mobile devices that can activate the system from anywhere within the building – in classrooms or staffed areas of a church, for instance, or outside the building - parking lots, play areas, etc.  When activated, these systems are designed to contact law enforcement in seconds, speeding response times to ensure that professionals trained for crisis situations, such as active shooter scenarios, are notified and on-site as quickly as possible.

With its strobe light stations and two-way communication capabilities, it also alerts building occupants to take precautions immediately. In schools, these pull stations are positioned throughout the building in high-traffic, high-visibility areas to facilitate activation when necessary. In churches, however, these pull stations are positioned to take into account the building personnel. Rather than high-traffic areas, the stations are installed in areas that are staffed and not generally open to passing patrons. The logic behind this strategy follows that in schools, students and faculty can practice responding to active shooter scenarios by drilling responses and protocols. House of worship, however, are not afforded the same opportunities. Rather than make these RERS pull stations available to untrained or unprepared guests, the positioning of the stations take advantage of staff or trained volunteers familiar with the response protocols are in the best position to activate them.

Once activated, not only is local law enforcement notified, but pre-recorded messages are transmitted over the speaker, phone, or radio systems to designated people - staff and volunteers. In conjunction with the pull stations, designated security personnel and church leadership are trained to respond by assisting in directing attendees to safe areas and facilitating communication. At larger churches, a law enforcement officer may be present somewhere in the outside vicinity to assist with traffic direction prior to, and following, the services or events, and the RERS system is designed to communicate immediately with that officer as the first and fastest responder.  Taking these elements into consideration, church leaders and security professionals have seized the opportunity to deploy creative and comprehensive emergency response plans in often difficult situations.

The security world is always changing and growing, adapting to new technologies and finding creative applications for the old. The majority of press coverage is focused – rightfully so – on school security, but other areas that routinely see the gathering of large groups of people also face security challenges. Houses of worship are one of these areas, and as the security tech landscape has evolved, so have the solutions available to church leadership. Rapid Emergency Response Systems being utilized in these facilities across the country represent the next and crucial step in protecting constituents in these houses of worship.

About the Author: As a co-founder and BluePoint’s CEO, John McNutt is responsible for product development and integration management. In addition to these roles, he is also the principal engineer of BluePoint’s pull station and wireless networking design. He has successfully constructed projects for dozens of public school districts, colleges, municipalities, churches and private industry. He has also completed the FEMA Emergency Management Institute for Multi-Hazard Emergency Management Training for K12 Schools. John is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Platteville and holds a professional engineering degree He has more than 25 years’ experience in the construction industry.