ON NOVEMBER 5, 2017, twenty-six people were killed by a gunman at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. What we all became painfully aware of that morning is that church violence can occur anytime, anywhere, and in a church of any size.
The question is, how does our church prepare, prevent, or respond to an active shooter? Some congregations need to initiate a security program, while others who have security measures in place, should evaluate existing protocols.
Whether you are staring out or reviewing your current process, here are key points to consider:
When starting a team, seek church leadership support, while keeping your insurance agent and attorney informed. Recruit current and retired law enforcement officers first.
Outlined standards under the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, allow retired or separated officers to carry a concealed weapon in any jurisdiction in the United States with few exceptions. To be compliant they must meet yearly qualification standards with oversite by a local law enforcement agency which lends to their continued training.
If this group is not available, then expand your search to military or former military personnel. The team could also include volunteers who are positioned in key locations, some of whom could be roaming, to observe and report any unusual or criminal behavior. Always run a complete background check on anyone who will be part of your team. This should include at least three reference checks.
Seek training for the team from qualified companies or individuals that provide church security training. And have someone from the local police department visit and meet with the team to discuss how they will respond to an active shooter.
ARMED VS UNARMED
The FBI reports that most active shooters don’t stop shooting until someone who is armed arrives at the scene.
I strongly recommend that you hire a uniformed off-duty police officer. If you are a large church, you’ll want to hire more than one officer. These officers are trained to respond to an active shooter and have instant communication with their department to request help in an emergency.
Having a uniformed officer and marked police vehicle on premises may act as a deterrent and prevent crime in the first place. Allowing civilians to carry concealed weapons when an off-duty officer is on premises is not a good idea. The officer may not be able to distinguish the good guys from the bad, and innocent people may be hurt if a shooting starts.
When an off-duty officer is not available, then you’ll want someone to carry a concealed weapon. This person(s) should be a member of the church, have a background in firearms, and receive additional firearms training from a qualified tactical shooting firearms instructor. I’d seek out a law enforcement firearms instructor. Many retired experts provide training through private companies and shooting ranges.
After setting up your core team you’ll want to expand training to your ushers, greeters, and parking lot volunteers.
Consider this group as your “front line” security team. Awareness and observation skills are important as they will usually see something before the security team does. Outfitting them with communication tools, such as radios, goes a long way in providing instantaneous information. Inexpensive “family channel” radios work well in smaller churches while commercial radios may be necessary for larger churches.
Note, always use plain language, never ten codes, as they may be confusing during an emergency. Your ushers should also be trained on how to evacuate people from the building in case of an emergency. In an active shooter situation people must be directed away from the shooter, so it’s vital that initial communication about his location is timely and correct.
Active shooter training for staff and all weekend volunteers must be mandatory.
Many free resources are available through your local law enforcement agency and the Department of Homeland Security. Check with your insurance company to locate recommended training organizations or companies.
The most popular training tools are the A.L.I.C.E. and “Run, Hide, Fight” methods. The A.L.I.C.E. method is taught by certified trainers and is being embraced by many school districts. The “Run, Hide, Fight” method has found its way into businesses and churches. In either case, it’s important
to keep records of everyone trained and to recertify or retrain every year.
This will ensure that taught methods are ready to be used and to update the staff and volunteers on lessons learned from any other incidents that may have occurred elsewhere.
BUILDING PREPARATION AND SECURITY
Ask for a free building inspection and review from your local law enforcement agency, fire department, and EMS unit.
Handling your request will normally be a community resource officer with the police department and a representative from the Fire Marshall’s office. Not only will they point out safety and security concerns, but they will become familiar with your building(s) in case they must respond to an emergency there. Next, conduct a self-assessment of your property and buildings. Start from the outside in. Cutting shrubbery and trees back will help with sight lines in your parking lot and around your buildings.
Your parking lot and walkways should be well lit with “white” light. Amber or yellow light does show colors as well. Many churches are moving to LED lights which provide very good coverage at reduced costs. Motion sensitive lights are also a good addition to the exterior of a building, especially its corners and above doorways.
Exterior doors and windows should be able to be locked and not easily breached. In the case of an active shooter, all interior doors including classrooms, should be able to be locked from the inside. If the shooter is close by and people cannot escape, then they must lock down. Many companies are selling specialized equipment to lock doors, such as metal barricades. These may violate current fire codes so check with your Fire Marshall before purchasing these items.
A move is being made in churches to lock all exterior doors during services. In a small church this is easily accomplished, however mega churches will have difficulty or may not be able to do this. A large church facility may select doors that will be locked, such as the children’s area. Keeping a volunteer security team member on the inside of a locked door will help with late arrivals.
You must first pray for wisdom, discernment, and the continued protection provided by the Lord. Security is a cultural mindset. Every staff member and volunteer must embrace the teaching and continued awareness necessary to provide a safe and secure church.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ron Aguiar is the founder of Oasis Safety and is considered an expert in church safety and security. He has more than 30 years of experience in private security, law enforcement, and church security. He specializes in church safety and security training, child sexual abuse prevention training, and active shooter training for churches and businesses.