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Emergency Preparedness: When a Crisis Strikes

Emergency Preparedness: When a Crisis Strikes

Effective response to emergencies takes planning. Is your church prepared?

It's Sunday morning.  Your sanctuary is full of parishioners whose attentions are focused on your message. All is calmat least for the moment.

When the Unexpected Happens

It could be that the possible tornado you've been warned about becomes a reality and hits your facility full-force.  Alternatively, it could be a substantial fire that breaks out in your church's kitchen possibly next to a nursery of babies and small children.  Or it could be a nightmare comes true: an explosion, or an individual randomly shooting at those attending the services, that shatters the peace of your sanctuary and the lives and limbs of parishioners.

Thankfully, crisis situations like the above don't happen often.  But, they happen. And, they happen often enough that you need a well-thought-out emergency management plan (EMP) in place to guide your response to them.

"You can hope for the best but you have to be prepared for the worst," says Brad Fortune, a lieutenant with the Plano, Texas Police Department, who works with faith-based organizations and schools on their emergency planning. 

"And one way you can do that is to have a plan for responding to emergencies and mitigating their impact as best you can even though you hope you never have to use it."

What's in an EMP?
Simply put, a church's EMP is a document that includes guidelines and other important information that helps direct the actions that need to be taken to in response to specific emergency situations that can occur in a church facility.

At a minimum, any such plan covers three types of emergencies, according to Fortune.  These include law enforcement emergencies, covering how the church responds to situations such as intruders and active shooters, as well as protests/demonstrations and other events calling for a police response; events such as fire, medical emergencies, and hazardous materials; and tornados, earthquakes, ice storms, outbreaks of serious infectious diseases, along with other natural disasters. 

And while these are the areas that every church EMP should include, the plan also has to be customized to fit unique issues affecting its particular facilities.

"Every faith-based organization is different some things that are important for one organization might not be as critical for another," notes Sara Jones, assistant to the facilities director, as well as outside events coordinator for Chase Oaks Church, a non-denominational church with an average weekend adult attendance of 4,000, in Plano.

And that's not just because every church's physical plant is unique.

For example, although Chase Oaks' church and office locations are in different cities (Plano and adjacent Richardson respectively), they share a single phone system.  As a result, a 911 call from the church is immediately connected to 911 call center in Richardson, with the church's Richardson office address showing up on the center's emergency call screens.  This means that emergency callers from the church must say "I need Plano" upon connecting with the 911 operator a situation that is addressed in full in the Chase Oaks EMP.

Other elements of the Chase Oaks EMP also include a clear delineation of the church's "chain of command" in the event of an emergency, as well as a list of emergency contacts; maps of the facility with floor plans; and maps showing where fire extinguishers/hydrants/exits/pull alarms are placed, where first aid kits are kept, and where escape routes and shelter-in-place areas are located.

Preparation Resources
Jones recommends providing local police and fire departments with these facilities maps so that they can be familiar with the layout of your church in the event they are called to an emergency. 

These emergency responders can provide valuable input to a church as it prepares its EMP, according to Fortune, most importantly assessing plans to see if they cover all the areas they should, and that they are consistent with how responders operate.

Local, regional, and/or state-level emergency management agencies can also be of great help to churches in developing their EMPs, notes Fortune, while at the federal level, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has very useful information on a variety of topics, including how to respond in an active-shooter situation.

In preparation of the Chase Oaks plan, useful information came from completed plans from other churches; seminars held by the Plano Police Department; university and large-company EMP plans; and helpful websites, including those of the Department of Homeland Security (www.dhs.gov) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (www.fema.gov). 

These two agencies have also joined force to create "Ready," (www.ready.gov), a national public service advertising campaign designed to educate and empower Americans to prepare for and respond to emergencies, including natural and man-made disasters.

It is important to view your EMP as a living document, says Jones, noting that "It is never complete.  You will make changes to it." 

With this in mind, Jones advises that you should make sure to document revisions of your plan and the dates upon which they are made.  Also focus on keeping your plan simple so that it is easy to read and follow: in the Chase Oaks plan, the table of contents details the topics of what each section includes, along tabs for easy access. 

Media Relations/Crisis Management
Particularly after incidents involving violence and/or physical injury that take place within their facilities, church officials can find themselves having to deal with members of the media, such as newspaper and television reporters, as they explain the events that took place, as well as how they responded. 

At times like this, it pays to have a media relations/crisis management plan in place, according to Lawrence Swicegood, founder and head of Clarion Communications & Media (CCM), a marketing communications firm that focuses exclusively on non-profit organizations, primarily churches.

When a high-profile incident involving your church takes place, plan on getting media inquiries and having an immediate response ready, Swicegood advises. 

"So many times, a church will think let's just wait and see if this goes away' but typically, it doesn't," says Swicegood.  This leaves space for rumors to get started, he notes.  And, particularly nowadays, when social media can help spread (accurate or inaccurate) information around the world in an instant, a delayed reaction by a church can fuel the flames of a global rumor-mill, "and result in a tiny flame erupting into a full-blown, raging fire."

Also, "Speak the truth don't try to cover things up, or offer a half-truth," says Swicegood.  And keep in mind that "no comment" or "our lawyers told us we can't say anything" are very bad public relations, "And can lead to speculation about what you are trying to hide."

While speaking to reporters, be careful about the language you use.  Swicegood advises that you should avoid using words like "shocking" or "horrible" or other emotion-triggering, often-inflammatory terms.  A reporter may interview you for 20 minutes, but at the end of the day they are just going to use a few moments of the juiciest soundbites, he notes, "because that's what headlines are made of."

Also, when being interviewed by reporters, stick to your talking points and don't be lured into talking too much.

A lot of times, a reporter will ask you a question and, after you answer it, remain silent for a few moments, Swicegood explains. Their hope is that this will make you feel obliged to say more, in order to fill what you may feel to be an uncomfortable silence. 

"Don't feel obliged to fill that pregnant pause,'" says Swicegood. "Keep to your main talking points and remember if you don't say it, you can't be misquoted."

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