Sutherland Springs, Texas. Charleston, South Carolina. Knoxville, Tennessee.
What do these cities and towns have in common?
They were home to churches targeted by gunmen over the past 10 years. In these three massacres alone, about 40 people lost their lives and dozens more were wounded. The headlines have been peppered with reports of similar assaults over the past decade, and some research shows an upward trend in the number of violent attacks against houses of worship.
The cities and the churches share two other things in common: The attackers entered the church unimpeded —the Charleston shooter even participated in a Bible study before killing nine parishioners — and no one imagined it could ever happen.
But it did, and it might, and it seems there is no safe haven from murderous violence any more.
While there is no 100 percent safeguard against those with deadly intent, there are many steps churches and other houses of worship can take to protect their congregations. While mass shootings get the headlines, there are a lot of violent incidents that fly under the radar but still have the potential to irrevocably change the lives of both victims and witnesses.
In this second installment of a series about church security, we look at ways churches can use integrated methods to reduce the likelihood of violence striking those simply trying to get closer to God. Here are security considerations to keep in mind when engaging a design firm for a new church, renovation or expansion.
Identify priorities. The extent of security within a church is often dictated by the size of the construction budget. You want to keep the congregation safe while at worship, but there are other areas of the church that need consideration, such as children’s ministry spaces, classrooms, fellowship halls and administrative offices. Plan for integrated costs associated with security measures on the front end so these aren’t afterthoughts during or after construction.
Develop a response plan. There is no point in providing alarm systems or other security apparatus if there is no plan in place on how people should respond and exit the building. Who will direct the evacuation? Who will call 911? Where should congregants go once they exit the church? There’s a chance the security threat won’t be over once they get outside. Some houses of worship offer high-tech productions as part of their services. Will the house lights come on if an alarm sounds? Do you have adequate emergency lighting? These are important questions to answer during the programming and design phases to take those measures into consideration so that your security response plan can be developed in conjunction with developing your building plans instead of waiting until after construction is finished.
Plan surveillance zones. Surveillance cameras are expensive, but a design professional well-versed in security can design spaces so that fewer cameras are needed. The number of cameras can be reduced by planning to place them at major intersection points, such as the church entrance, lobby and the sanctuary entrance. This must be considered early in the planning and design process. Strategic placement of monitoring devices will provide a sense of safety for churchgoers as well as serve as a possible deterrent to intruders.
Keep the threat outside. One main consideration in securing houses of worship is limiting access to the congregation or other areas of the church, such as children’s ministries, once an intruder enters the building. For instance, if an auditorium or sanctuary is locked from the outside, then members of the congregation can begin to exit the building before a gunman enters.
Access control. Churches need to be welcoming and open to the public as often as possible. While it is desirable that main entrances should be left open, especially on Sundays or other worship days, it is important to secure these and limit entry at other times. Access control systems such as electronic key fobs can be useful in segregating some church areas and wings, especially children’s areas. This is especially important if a church offers daycare or educational services. Providing ways to prevent unwanted entry but facilitate a swift exit is another vital component to protecting building occupants that can be controlled with hardware and other means.
Building codes. Remember that building codes only dictate minimal building life-safety features such as accessibility, fire protection, egress requirements, and sprinkler systems. Exceeding code requirements, such as increasing the size or number of doors, can often lead to security improvements.
It’s indeed a sad commentary on society that church security should be at the forefront of discussions with a design professional when planning church construction, expansion or renovation. But it’s a need that can’t be overlooked. A shepherd, after all, must protect his flock.