School shootouts, street violence, natural weather disasters emergency situations are taking place every day in the U.S. That's why it's important for worship facilities to a plan in place for responding to any such event.
The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) advises worship facilities to develop plans not only for responding to emergencies, but also for the prevention of emergencies and the mitigation of losses. FEMA even offers a free guide, "Emergency Operations Plan for Houses of Worship".
"It provides houses of worship with information regarding emergency operations planning for the spectrum of threats and hazards they may face," says Aaron Walker, a spokesperson for FEMA. "It discusses actions that may be taken before, during, and after an incident in order to reduce the impact on property and any loss of life, and it encourages every house of worship to develop an emergency operations plan."
Putting a Plan in Place
Dan Null, facilities manager for Gurnee, IL-based Village Church of Gurnee, says his church's risk management team spent 18 months developing a disaster plan, which encompasses issues from dangerous persons in the building to natural disasters. To help create that plan, Null and his team contracted Belfor a national, full-service disaster recovery consultancy. "We chose a national company so that, in case there is a region wide disaster, we have the contact information to a secondary and tertiary company just to be safe.
"We now have a completed document that details how staff and volunteers should react when a given situation arises," Null says. "We annually train staff and strongly encourage volunteers to attend twice annual training sessions. It doesn't do any good for us to have a plan and only those who wrote the plan know what's in it. We tell staff that when an emergency arises they are now on duty."
Null advises that volunteers also be included in training as there will be times when not everyone in on the plan will be available at the church. As part of our plan, each room has a map which details where AED, fire extinguishers and fire pull stations are located," Null explains. "It shows the primary and secondary evacuation routes and weather safe areas. We ask all staff and volunteers to actually look at these maps and know where they are. So, when the emergency arises, they know what to do without have to consult the map when they need to be moving."
Making Inclusive Plans
According to FEMA's Walker, effective emergency operations planning is not done in isolation, but requires the work of many. "It is critical that houses of worship work with their local emergency management agency and community partners, including first responders, during the planning process, as an effective house of worship EOP is integrated with community, regional, and state plans," he says. "This collaboration makes more resources available and helps to ensure the seamless integration of all responders."
The First Presbyterian Church in Waunakee, Wis., has had an emergency action plan in place for about five years. It requires all of its church leaders, administration team, committee chairs, ushers, and leaders of non-church groups who regularly use the church facility to read and understand the plan in case of an emergency.
Currently, the plan includes steps to take in case of fire, a tornado or other weather disaster, an intruder or shooter, and all lockdown situations.
"This was something that a number of us thought we needed to have in writing, and because of my background, I was given the challenge to write it," says Sheldon Schall, a long-time member of the First Presbyterian Church and a former fire chief. "This wasn't anything new to me, but implementing it for a church is different than a school because you are dealing with volunteers who change quite frequently."
To meet the challenge, Schall researched similar worship action plans, sought input from police and fire stations, and used his training to develop a comprehensive guide.
"We wanted this to be as complete as possible and address all real-life emergencies in order to create a sense of comfort in situations so people don't panic," Schall says. "One thing I did and you don't see it really in any other emergency plans is put pictures in, and that really helped."
In the short time the plan has been in place, the church has already implemented it three times one was because of a kitchen fire and the other two were due to unwanted people on the premises.
Communication Is Key
Whether it's offering tips to survive an impending tornado or letting people know someone is safe after a tragic event, having proper communication channels in place is vital for any solid emergency planning protocol.
"We have an account with a phone tree company [VoiceWaveOnline]. So, we can send out voice mail, email and/or text messages to our congregation for a set flat rate," Null says. "We keep the information updated monthly so we don't get too far out of date with our current attenders. We did make a decision when setting this up hat it was to be used for emergency communications only. That way, when we do have a serious incident, it will be different than any of our other communication methods and won't get lost in the clutter."
Schall admits that an emergency plan is only as good as the people who read it. That's why the church makes sure that all its leaders and volunteers have a handle on the procedures.
"They are asked to review it each year so they are comfortable with what the action plan is," Schall explains. "If everyone stays calm and follows procedures, an emergency plan can make quite a difference and may even save lives."