The holiday season is upon us. Throughout the U.S., people will celebrate religious holidays between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. As we gather together with family and friends, now is an important reminder to learn how to gather and worship in peace.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, more than half of Americans will attend a religious service to commemorate Christmas. From Diwali to Hannukah, more people gather together to worship and celebrate the holiday season, so it’s also a time for places of worship to plan for unforeseen events.
We tend to think of houses of worship as safe havens for people to gather in peace. However, tensions can often rise during the holiday season, sometimes to emergency levels. They can manifest as an act of vandalism, like the Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia, where over 500 headstones were damaged or destroyed. Or, it can be an act of violence similar to December 2020, when a gunman opened fire on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
This post will discuss how places of worship can prepare for emergencies like these and more so that people can worship in peace.
Why should houses of worship prepare for emergencies?
The Department of Homeland Security considers places of worship “soft target” organizations. These are “locations that are easily accessible to large numbers of people and that have limited security or protective measures in place making them vulnerable to attack.”
To keep staff, congregation, volunteers and the community safe, a house of worship should prepare for unforeseen events. And these threats may rise during the holiday season due to the increased number of people coming to celebrate special events.
Many of these organizations receive threats, vandalism, theft or even an active shooter. Some may even suffer damage from natural disasters and severe weather during winter months. That is why an emergency preparedness plan to protect worshipers, buildings and assets is essential for houses of worship.
According to Matt Nisley, Owner and Managing Director of Eagle Security Group, a good security plan for houses of worship should consider people, policies and procedures and technology (Security Best Practices for Houses of Worship). To begin creating a solid security plan that considers these three elements, a house of worship should conduct a risk assessment, covering any process — or anyone or anything — that needs protecting.
To start a risk assessment, a house of worship should identify the risks it is exposed to. Be sure to include anything or anyone that needs protection. A risk assessment will look different depending on the type and location of the facility, the people attending and the staff. Some areas to consider include the following:
- Identify potential threats. Is the house of worship located in a high-crime area? If so, what types of crimes typically occur? Is your religion the target of certain types of crime? For example, fires caused by arson are far more common at houses of worship than in most other structures. According to the National Church Arson Task Force, a disproportionate amount of these arsons in the United States occurs at Black churches.
- The building is located in an area prone to natural disasters, such as St. Elisabeth’s chapel in Ortley Beach, New Jersey, which was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
- Do you hold large gatherings and events where special procedures are required, such as a Christmas service? What procedures and policies will keep people safe coming in and out of the building on special occasions such as a holiday worship event?
- Who has access to areas of important and confidential documents, money or high-value equipment? Who is authorized to supervise specific tasks such as watching children? Although uncomfortable to talk about, theft and other crimes can occur by internal staff.
- Does anyone travel internationally to represent the church on a mission or other position? For example, in 2017, South Sudanese rebels kidnapped eight local aid workers working for the U.S. charity, Samaritan’s Purse.
- How will attendees requiring special assistance get out of the building during an emergency?
Emergency Operations Plan (EOP)
Based on the risk assessment, a house of worship should create policy and procedures, known as an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), that outlines roles and responsibilities and how situations will be dealt with before, during and after an incident. An EOP’s purpose is to reduce the impact on property and any loss of life.
Developing and implementing a comprehensive EOP is essential for houses of worship to plan for the range of threats and hazards they may face. An EOP also helps with business continuity or keeping the business going when something such as a power outage, threat or theft happens.
Initiating and supporting the planning effort should be spearheaded by the leadership of the house of worship to ensure everyone, including staff, congregation and community, are onboard from the start. To begin creating an EOP for your house of worship, please refer to the guide from The Department of Homeland Security Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship.
Practice the EOP
Training and practicing the EOP are critical exercises for reducing the impact of emergencies. After developing, vetting and approving the EOP, leadership should communicate the plan to the staff, congregation, community, volunteers and anyone with roles and responsibilities. Be sure to include security staff, as many off-duty police officers work security during service times.
Ensure the staff receives the requisite training and preparation to execute their role in preventing, protecting against and responding to attacks. Practice drills and posting signage, such as evacuation routes, are also essential. Consider bringing in law enforcement, first responders and other community partners that have a role in the EOP for the training sessions. This will help congregants become more comfortable working with these individuals during an incident.
Update the EOP
An important element is changing the EOP when circumstances change, or a new policy is in place. Review the EOP at least annually to keep the plan updated and relevant to the house of worship’s current needs.
Quickly communicating essential updates to the right people is the most critical aspect of an effective EOP in reducing the impact on property and lives during emergency situations. A reliable and comprehensive communication system can make a difference in getting people to safety as quickly as possible.
Although we are trained to call 911 in an emergency, crisis management calls for a more robust, efficient and systematic way of passing on important information quickly. Power outages, natural disasters, gas leaks and other incidents require a technology that can disseminate information quickly to all essential parties.
A mass notification system can send out important information to staff, congregation and community effectively and quickly. In addition, mass notification systems allow houses of worship to take advantage of advanced technologies that replace homegrown notification systems such as a call tree.
Some of the advantages of a mass notification system for your house of worship include the following:
- Send urgent notifications via email, SMA, Call/TTS and mobile app.
- Reach specific groups or entire networks. Some systems allow sending messages within a targeted geographical area.
- Integration with third-party systems, such as a PA system, digital signage and two-way radios.
- Receive replies from recipients and see them in real-time. This gives system administrators the tools to take fast action to ensure the safety of your staff, congregation and community.
- Pre-programmed text message templates to reach people fast.
- Alerts are delivered to your smart device when cell towers are down or networks are overloaded.
- Complete every task on one page, so you don’t have to toggle back and forth to launch a message when seconds count.
Technology plays a vital role in worshiping in peace. A mass notification system is a robust, reliable and efficient way to share information. For a house of worship, the EOP planning stage is an excellent opportunity to identify how communication occurs during an incident and whether any gaps or deficiencies exist and need addressing.
An Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) and the latest communication tools can keep your congregation and clergy safe so they can worship in peace during the holidays.
Regroup’s mass notification system for houses of worship provides a fast and easy method of alerting entire groups of people when issues arise, including workers and community members.
The platform helps collaborate and improve communication throughout your community to keep them safe and informed during critical and non-critical times.
To learn more about how Regroup’s mass notification system will help improve communication throughout your community, schedule a free personal demo of Regroup today.