Thursday, July 3, 2014

Churches ~ Dealing with Emergency Situations

Imagine you’re sitting at church listening to your minister.  Suddenly, you smell what hints to be smoke, but you think it has to be your imagination so you put it out of your mind.  A minute later, you notice the smell is becoming stronger.  You look around and see that others are becoming aware that something is wrong and yet no one seems to be taking action.  You realize with horror that there must be a fire in the church.

Change the scenario.  Again, you’re in church.  Outside there is a major thunderstorm.  The wind is howling and there is torrential rain ramming the side of the building.  Hail starts to ping off the outside walls.  It is then that you hear a faint sound…the sound of the tornado siren in town.  Again, everyone looks around uncomfortably, but no one is moving.

New scenario.  You’re in church and everyone’s attention is on the minister.  All of a sudden, you hear the back door bang open.  When you turn around, you are horrified to see a deranged man with an AK47 pointed at the congregants.  No one moves.

Three situations.  All requiring some form of emergency action.  Would your church know what to do to save lives?  Does your church even have some type of emergency plan in place?  Do you have designated members appointed who would know what to do and could take charge in any emergency that may arise?  You’d be surprised how many churches, large and small, do not. 

Many think the chances of something happening at their church, particularly when services are in session, are extremely rare.  Or they may believe that God will take care of them so they don’t have to worry.  Yet it has happened in numerous churches throughout history.   It only takes one time for people to be seriously injured and/or killed.  I don’t think any church wants to have that on their conscious.

It is extremely important to have an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) in place regardless of what you think the chances are of having an emergency situation actually occur in your church.  The time you take to put one in place will be well worth the effort if an emergency should happen. 

The first thing you can do is to get a copy of the state or local risk assessment from your local emergency management agency.  This assessment would contain information of potential threats and hazards in your community that could also affect churches.  Depending on the part of the country you live in, you could be susceptible to fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, violence, and so on. 

There isn’t room in this article to go over every single detail, but I would like to give some basics and will also note a very good resource at the end to help you put together a very effective EOP. 

1.  OSHA requires the posting of building evacuation plans, fire evacuation maps, and easily seen emergency exit signs above all doors in order to meet the building code requirements.

2.   Make sure that you have sufficient fire extinguishers available and have numerous people trained to use them.  They should be hung in easily locatable areas with a red Fire Extinguisher sign above or next to it.  Also make sure you have adequate and reliable smoke alarms in various rooms.

3.    Have a detailed evacuation plan in case you need to evacuate everyone from the building.  All exits should be clear at all times; all doors should open outwards.

4.    Appoint a safety team of members who attend regularly and train them how to get people out quickly and as safely as possible. There should be at least several people who will be in charge in the event of an emergency, though one person should take the lead.  This person would make the final decisions so that there is no confusion among the team in a panic situation.  Members of the safety team should also be trained in communicating with outside emergency personnel.  We may think that in an emergency situation, everyone would act in an orderly manner, but when panic sets in, all bets are off.  Having someone in an authority position can help keep people calm and thinking clearly.

5.   Appoint “Buddies” who would be in charge of helping the disabled and the elderly.  There should be a plan as to whether they should physically try to carry someone to safety either by carrying the individual themselves or using a chair as a carrying tool.  If you have babies and small children in separate rooms, you will need assigned teams to immediately go to those rooms to get the children out and then get them to their parents in the safe areas. 

6.    You should have a safe area designated in the event of a tornado or extremely high winds.  In the event of a tornado, do not stay in the open sanctuary or any open room.  Get people into the smallest areas, away from doors, windows, and as close to structured walls as possible.  Check with your town’s fire department to verify what the siren means.  Some set them off for severe thunderstorm warnings or because an actual tornado has been sighted in the area. 

7.     In the event of a fire or even a hint of a fire, evacuate everyone to a safe area away from the building and keep everyone together.  Do not take chances that it’s something minor.  Many buildings can burn quickly, so it’s not worth the risk of waiting.  Immediately call 9/11.  Members of the safety team should immediately get fire extinguishers and check the building to try to find the source.  If it is a highly active fire, do not try to put out the fire yourself as they can get out of hand very quickly.  Do not move cars unless you need to make room for emergency vehicles. 

8.     Churches should be equipped with emergency lights that come on in the event the electric should go out, and they should be placed in various rooms for adequate lighting.  Do not assume that street lights from the outside will be enough light.  In a storm, they may also go out.

9.     In the event of any evacuation, and if it’s safe to do so, your EOP team should quickly ‘sweep’ all rooms to make sure everyone has gone to the designated areas.  Yell out so people can hear you.  Make sure that everyone is accounted for.

10. A team should be trained for first aid. Have at least a couple of good sized first aid kits easily accessible in various parts of the building.  You might also want to look into getting an automated external defibrillator in case of heart attacks.  The Cookeville Mended Hearts has a program where they will donate defibrillators to churches who have a certain consistent number of attendees.  There are also other organizations who offer grants for these defibrillators. 

11.  Supply your local fire and police departments with reliable contact names and phone numbers in case of emergencies.  You can also give them your building schematics, emergency plans, and the location of your utility shut off valves, which they will keep on file.

General evacuations for fire and weather are basically standard in that the procedures can pretty much be followed step-by-step.  In the event of a gunman entering your church with the threat to cause harm, procedures can only be followed so far.  Hopefully, this will never happen in your church, but as we see in the news, it does happen.  In 2008, two people were killed and seven wounded in Knoxville at a Unitarian Church.  In 2012, six people were killed and four injured during a shooting in Wisconsin at a Sikh Temple. In 2013, a minister was shot and killed during the service in at Atlanta Tabernacle.  Just Google church shootings and you will see how much more common these tragedies are occurring.

There is no profile that exists for shooters; however, you can be aware that there may be signs or indicators. Whether the signs are minimal or obvious, many people go into denial thinking that it couldn’t actually be happening; therefore, they don’t say anything.  Your emergency team should be trained to skip the denial and act immediately.  You should also have a plan to safely alert everyone in the building.

In the event of someone coming into your church with a gun with the intention to cause harm, this is when you should apply the Run/Hide/Fight rules:

Run:  If you able to get your people out safely, do so immediately and quietly, and get them as far away from the building as possible.  Leave personal belongings behind.  Know your escape routes as there is always a possibility that one or more could be blocked. 

Hide:  Have safe rooms that have thick walls and doors.  Lock and barricade the doors, turn out the lights, cover the windows, and stay along a wall closest to the exit but out of the view of the hallway.  Silence all electronic devices and remain silent.  If you can do so safely, communicate to emergency personnel your location.  Remain in place until given the all clear by identifiable law enforcement.

Fight:  This is definitely a very last resort if you are unable to run or hide.  If in the vicinity of the shooter, the main thing is to try to keep everyone calm.  Your minister or someone from your emergency team should be trained on how to try to talk someone down without escalating the situation.  If this is not possible, then adults in immediate danger should try to overtake the shooter by using aggressive force and/or using items in their area such as chairs and other heavy objects.  There is a risk in fighting back so it is a judgment call based on the individual situations.  Again this is a last resort.

There is a lot more information available that I obviously cannot include here.  An excellent source to help you develop your Emergency Operations Plan is found at Whitehouse.gov.   It also includes many emergency plan details.  I would highly recommend your church printing this off and then following through in developing your own EOP and training your emergency team.   This information can be found at:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/developing_eops_for_houses_of_worship_final.pdf.

When it comes to church safety, the saying “it’s better to be safe than sorry” is a very good motto to keep in mind.  Don’t wait.  Lives could depend on it.  Remember…it takes only one time to cause serious injuries or deaths.  Keep your members safe!

Published in the Putman County Visions Magazine, July 2014 issue.


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