Securing Houses of Worship

Nov. 10, 2015
Integrators can play a vital role in hardening these “soft targets,” and a wireless Rapid Emergency Response System can help

Recent events have again turned the focus on so-called “soft targets,” and houses of worship certainly fall into that category. Integrators are up against unique variables as they evaluate and deploy security solutions for houses of worship.

Buildings that are home to religious gatherings have an “open door” environment and heavy traffic during specific times. Typically, they are most busy on the weekends — unlike a school, bank, government facility or business. Large houses of worship also see a high volume of people over a short period of time. Procedures for notifying police during a potentially threatening situation are not always clear. With such large numbers of people gathering every weekend, some houses of worship with larger congregations are able to set aside a portion of their operations budget for security; however, many have no security measures in place and a minimal or non-existent budget for security.

House of worship decision makers may not know where to get started in terms of finding a security solution that fits their needs and budget. Integrators working with a house of worship in this position should encourage them to evaluate and plan for worst-case scenarios in order to establish specific, action-based protocols. This is a best practice that will benefit any organization to ensure that the security plan will be implemented correctly and effectively in the rare chance that police response is needed.

Once those conversations have begun, the integrator can serve as a resource in sorting through options to find a solution that will support the security budget, policies and procedures.

Emergency Communications & Response

Emergency communication and notification must be well planned in a worship environment. Without an organized method of response, a house of worship is leaving itself vulnerable to potentially delayed police response and chaos. These organizations must carefully consider how to rapidly notify police in a crisis scenario. For example, in a building with adult attendees on one end of a building and children in a separate area, any sort of announcement over a PA system alerting the congregation of an intruder would likely cause panic and a rush of people to get to their children. By keeping the communications discrete among a smaller, dedicated group of people — these important protocols can be followed to help ensure that children and adults are reunited after either security clearance or a safe building evacuation.

At many houses of worship, communication to key staff or volunteers is extremely limited, although some facilities do use radio systems. A wireless Rapid Emergency Response System (RERS) can help broaden communication. With the right type of wireless technology in place, notifications could be activated anywhere from the parking lot to the back offices of a building, through the use of mobile pendants that will immediately notify police and other appropriate parties at the press of a button.

The pendants are typically small, discrete wearable devices. With designated staff or volunteers trained on how and when to use them, the pendants create an extremely efficient method for notification when police need to respond. If there was a threat outside the building, this type of wireless system can be installed to integrate with an access control system and prevent anyone else from entering the facility. This could also provide extra protection to a children’s area by closing off access and avoiding the potential panicked stampede of parents.

In addition to the mobile pendants for activation, there also is the option to install fixed wall mounts that are clearly labeled as a police alarm (think fire alarm, but blue). Houses of worship need to be very strategic in where they place wall mounted devices. If easily accessed by attendees, they may not understand that the wall mount’s ultimate purpose is for extreme emergencies only, further increasing the risk for false alarms or non-emergency activations. For some houses of worship, the solution may be to have the wall mounts only accessible by volunteers or staff in the children’s area or back offices. In this type of deployment, designated staff or volunteers stationed in other areas of the building could carry mobile pendants to ensure full building coverage.

Another possible option would be to have the wall mounted devices visible, but not accessible to attendees. They can be placed in clear view behind an information desk or coffee station. The purpose also serves to create awareness of a police notification system in place. This has the potential to deter criminal or violent activity and gives attendees assurance that there is a security system. Another potential option with a wireless RERS is two-stage notification. A larger house of worship may already have a dedicated and trained security team in place, or, in cases of a larger facility, law enforcement outside directing traffic or in the parking lot. In this situation, the system can be set up to notify security staff first, which will then quickly respond and assess the situation before activating the second notification stage directly to police.

Multi-building Campuses: Wireless RERS also enable a unique flexibility that supports communications and notification in multiple buildings, in between all of the buildings, and out into parking lots. It is a cost- effective method to cover a large campus because wall-mounted devices and repeaters are easily relocated as needed and there is minimal to no hardwiring required for any components in the system.

A campus is going to be more confusing for police response if someone were to call in an emergency from their mobile device; however a wireless RERS system reports to security and police the exact building and location within the building so they can minimize response time once on campus.

Access Control and Video Surveillance

During weekdays, a house of worship can potentially operate more like a business or school in terms of who has access to the building. Paid staff and volunteers typically make up most of the building occupancy during the typical 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours.

At some facilities, there is potential to operate the building similar to a standard office through the use of video surveillance and some type of access control system, such as card access; however, it is not sustainable to maintain access control around the clock, as most buildings need to be open to the public in order to achieve their mission.

Weeknights, for example, are often the platform for a variety of smaller group-type activities. Because of the need to be open, access control can only go so far. The RERS can easily integrate with access control systems. Through dedicated command and control, entry to the building, or parts of the building, can be controlled when pendants or wall mounts are activated.

Additionally, a wireless RERS can be integrated with a building’s video surveillance system. Today, most video surveillance systems are a combination of wired and wireless components, so integrating with a RERS means that when the system is activated by a pull station or pendant, law enforcement and first responders can gain access to the surveillance system, wirelessly, via the command and control center to better monitor what is going on.

Police Response and Training

Each house of worship will have its own specialized protocol for police response, which is why establishing procedures is critically important. A congregation of 1,000 will most likely have completely different needs than one of 20,000.

In order to have a system that will operate in the most impactful way, houses of worship also need to be in contact with local law enforcement. These agencies are typically supportive of working with the organizations in their community. As an added benefit to the house of worship, law enforcement also serves as another platform for discussion and evaluation of life-safety protocols. With an engaged law enforcement partner, the house of worship will be more likely to follow best practices and set up a system that fits the organization’s needs.

With staff and volunteers vastly outnumbered by attendees (especially at large houses of worship), training can be a challenge. At schools, for example, safety drills are required in many states by law, and the environment is much more controlled in terms of who is allowed in the building. The system for establishing a police response at a school also is more coordinated on every level because of the ability to involve all staff, students and teachers in training and drills.

At a house of worship, the attendance varies — which does not support training that includes all building occupants. Instead, training and safety procedures will fall on a core group of staff and/or volunteers to ensure the least amount of chaos and the fastest response possible in an emergency situation. There are a number of ways that a facility can handle the training of its core group of dedicated “security responders” as long as the end-result aligns with the organization’s established protocols. If the house of worship has no established protocols at this level, an integrator has the opportunity to educate and provide direction.

John Shales is Co-founder and Partner at BluePoint Alert Solutions, in addition to being managing partner of Shales McNutt Construction. To request more info about BluePoint, visit