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Preparing for an Active Shooter at Church

It's vital that churches have a protocol in place for keeping their congregation safe in the event of an active shooter. Hear from church leaders who share their methods in developing a strategic safety and security plan.

It seems every time you put on the news these days, there's a tragic story about a shooting taking place in the U.S., and sadly even worship facilities are not immune.

That's why it's vital that churches have a protocol in place for keeping their congregation safe in the event of an active shooter.

The latest FBI Hate Crimes Statistics report revealed there were 7,175 hate crime incidents in 2017, with almost 21 percent of those motivated by a religious bias. "Houses of Worship can be targeted because of the religion they practice or simply because of the demographic makeup their congregation, such as a race-based attack because they are a historically black church," says Wayne North, a consultant with Overwatch Risk Solutions, LLC, Tallahassee, Fla., which offers a free, basic, two-hour security assessment and consultation service to churches.

"Unfortunately, churches are attractive, soft' targets because of their open design, relative lack of physical security (especially during services) and the very nature of being open and welcoming to everyone."

Chuck Chadwick, founder and president of Security Services, Denton County, Texas, trains volunteers from church communities willing to play a bigger role in protecting their worship space. They could be anyone from ushers, to greeters, to people who work with the children’s programs. "Being unprepared for an active shooter situation would certainly lead to a situation where massive loss of life might be possible if the shooter goes unchecked," says Chadwick. "Preparation would also certainly lead to mitigating the damage a shooter could do. Dialing 911 and waiting is a fool's game. Quick thinking and a plan of action are great, but having someone who is trained and capable of stopping the shooter already at the church is what we call an Initial Responder.' These incidents are over in just a few minutes."

While Chadwick admits that having an active law enforcement officer at a church is preferable, he knows the cost is prohibitive for most churches since off-duty police officers generally run $40-$75 dollars an hour. He offers the Gatekeeper Program, which covers much the same training as law enforcement in an abbreviated fashion. Over the years, the six-day program has trained and certified hundreds of members of church security teams.  "It trains and certifies participants in the legal use of force, conflict resolution, pastoral protection, hand-to- hand defensive tactics, handcuffing, intermediate weapons and firearms," Chadwick says.

"We teach from a perspective of protecting the church pastors and congregation. All of our instructors have served Christian ministries as personal protection officers for many years." Protocols in Place Every house of worship should, first, have a comprehensive risk assessment done by a competent security professional which would include an assessment of the physical space; a review of local potential threats and hazards such as known extremist groups or other known agitators in the area, researching possible threatening social media posts, identifying prior "bad actors" in the area, interviews of clergy and staff on past events and so on.

"Written plans and policies regarding security and incident response are a mustpolicies on physical security, lockdown procedures, active shooter mitigation and response, and post incident communications are just a few of the key ones," North says. "Churches should also routinely train clergy, staff, and other key leaders on those polices and then practice the incident procedures ahead of time in a classroom setting, table top exercise, or active drills."

A Plan in Action
William A. Stack, pastor of Salem Full Gospel Church, in Salem, Missouri, and a Gulf War Veteran, says it's important for a church to be prepared due to the unfortunate realities of society today.  "While it is not often possible to prevent someone with ill motives from showing up, having procedures in place can help minimize or negate the threat," he says. "Nobody plans to fail, many fail to plan."

Stack says that his church has law enforcement and military veterans as part of the security team, and they have obtained their CCW permits, attended marksmanship training, and practiced reaction drills.  "We have a simple procedure in place, that we occasionally review with the church membership," he says. "We also limit the direction of movement of any would-be active shooters in the building by restricting entry to one end of the church building (in the event of fire, congregants can get out any direction, but those coming in only come in from one end of facility)."

Should anyone view an armed assailant, they are taught to shout "gun," and non-security team members duck down in the pew they are in/near. This helps prevent/minimize injuries/death of congregants from shots fired by the assailant or security team members, and helps security team members identify the assailant.  "If someone suspicious or unknown shows up, we are friendly and kind, but also have someone from the security team keep an eye on the person (unbeknownst to them)," Stack says.

"We also make the security team aware of potential domestic issues, if a congregant becomes involved in a bitter dispute with a spouse/ex." The church holds short drills throughout the year to allow people to go through the motions of ducking behind the pews and have further discussions and training with the security teams out of public view.

Brian McAuliffe, CFO and director of operations at Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois, says the church has long had different disaster plans for fire and weather events, and only recently added armed intruder plans.

To prepare a plan, the church has gone to several conferences and training sessions, to learn the best methods if an active shooter ever enters the facility. "Looking at the data, the best plan seems to be to get people to evacuate. If there is an armed intruder, we're going to get everyone out of the building as fast as we can, unless they are in an area the shooter is and it is locked down," tells McAuliffe. "It has become part of our regimen of regular walkthroughs of training, and has become ingrained along with our normal evacuation plans."

To drill the plan, Willow Creek brought in some weapons with blanks so they could determine what an active shooting would sound like in the course of someone speaking on stage or when the worship music was playing. "I think it's good for people to do that kind of test, because we were surprised by the lack of volume," McAuliffe says. "Plus, it gives the ability to figure out where those shots are coming from."

Act Fast
When an active shooter first enters a church, Chadwick says the first protocol should be to try to isolate him/them. "Locking down the children's area would be my primary concern," he says. "Having a way to communicate the need and a way to physically do it would be the initial steps.

Locking down other areas in progression, notifying law enforcement and then deploying armed resistance should be a simultaneous response." North says someone should immediately sound an alarm so others know there is a threat and move to safety immediately. "This is where pre-planning comes in," explains North. "Having a pre-planned distress code that trained staff and volunteers recognize immediately allows getting people to safety to start immediately."

A Team Effort  
Every staff member and volunteer at a worship facility has a role to play in the security of the church.

While churches want to be inviting, anyone that sees something of concern must communicate it to the security team. "We advocate the use of radios or cell phones to notify security of behavior that is out of the ordinary," Chadwick says. "We offer policies and procedure templates that churches can use to model their own set of guidelines for their security teams and ministries." North says it really comes down to planning, training and instituting a security mindset. "Ushers and greeters are the first line of defense inside the church. Proper training on even simple things like what body language and behavioral cues to look for is extremely important," he says. "Look for what is out of place and what doesn't belong. Beware of strangers, which is almost the opposite of what a faith community does, but it is crucial for the first stepof to recognize." Anyone working with children has the added responsibility of protecting those that are most vulnerable so it is crucial they understand how to handle emergency situations and get children to safety immediately, he adds.  The Don'ts of Security The biggest mistake people make in these situations, Chadwick says, is having a mindset that the police will get there in time to neutralize an active shooter. Case after case shows that while law enforcement involvement minimizes the legal liabilities, they usually get there in time to take a report and count the bodies. Keep things simple, Stark says. Complex plans can fall apart or be forgotten in high-stress environments, whereas simple, intuitive responses can be more effective in high-stress situations such as with an active shooter.  Remember, while no plan can prevent all possibilities of tragedy, a simple plan, executed consistently, can help keep an unpleasant experience from becoming a deadly one. "Simply, the biggest mistake they can make is assuming it won't happen to them and fail to prepare," North says. "It can happen anywhere and at any time. It's just an unfortunate fact of the world we live in today." 

Michael Mercer, president of Michael Mercer Consulting L.L.C. and a retired police officer, began working with his church, Eastpoint Christian Church in South Portland, Maine when it planned to move into a new location last year. 

"It is impossible to predict an active shooter situation. Victims are often selected randomly, the event evolves quickly, and it usually takes law enforcement to end the threat," he says.

Mercer’s checklist for being prepared is as follows:
I made a determination on how to evacuate or lockdown personnel and visitors and created several emergency evacuation routes. I paid attention to consider persons with disabilities and other mobility issues.
I selected effective shelter-in- place locations and made sure that these locations had thick walls, solid doors with locks, minimal interior windows, emergency first aid kits, communication devices, and alarms.
I determined how those present on the grounds will be notified in the event of an active shooter incident. This could be done using familiar terms, sounds, lights, and electronic communications, such as text messages or emails.
I determined how to let the congregants know when buildings and grounds are safe.
I trained staff, house of worship leadership, and the congregation on what to expect and how to react in the event of an active shooter.
Worked with first responders to help highlight common pre-attack behaviors displayed by past offenders.


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