Safety and security in places of worship

Fire, EMS and law enforcement personnel can play an important role in the layers of safety that protect religious gatherings in the event of an emergency


By Robert Wales, BS, NRP

Recent events, such as the shooting at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, have heightened concerns of safety and security in religious meetings. Attacks on religious facilities, including mosques, churches and synagogues, are not uncommon in the U.S., and major incidents have occurred in religious services in recent history in other developed countries as well, such as New Zealand and Germany.

As a paramedic who also has work experience in private security, I mentally prepare for emergencies in any sort of large gathering out of force of habit. Since joining a large Dallas-based church in 2010, I have worked with church staff and other volunteers to develop a thoughtful and intentional safety and medical response plan for the church. I have more experience on the medical side, but best practices for safety and security involve a combination of medical response and preventative safety measures. These practices are designed for our church body and campus, but could be adapted to meet the needs of any house of worship.

Safety considerations should always balance visible security, like uniformed police officers, with less-intrusive measures, like surveillance and disaster response plans. (Photo/AP Photo)
Safety considerations should always balance visible security, like uniformed police officers, with less-intrusive measures, like surveillance and disaster response plans. (Photo/AP Photo)

Over 20,000 people come through the doors of our church’s campuses on any given Sunday. Safety considerations should always balance visible security, like uniformed police officers, with less-intrusive measures, like surveillance and disaster response plans. An ideal situation is one where the layers of security function so well together that church members and visitors feel safe, without making people feel unwelcome.

We utilize the following layers of security, which can be scaled up or down to meet the needs of any size of a place of worship:

1. Police presence. We hire police officers as a very visible first layer of safety, to direct traffic before and after the service, and to stand in the lobby and near points of access/egress during the service. We always position at least one officer near the entrance of the children’s area, both as a crime deterrent and as a reassurance to parents. The presence of the police officer also helps to break down the fear that children may have with interacting with police officers.

The police also serve as a communication channel to activate fire and EMS, if needed, as they can reach out to dispatch directly via radio.

Some churches use members with concealed carry licenses instead of police officers to provide this level of protection if they cannot afford to pay LE officers to come to each service. It’s important that each organization establishes a plan with a legal foundation, based on local laws, and that they train frequently with professional instructors.

2. Safety team. A ministry team, comprised of volunteers who are the first to welcome visitors and members, and provide surveillance over the crowds coming into the building, provides the second layer of our church’s safety. We use video surveillance and physical observation to assess people as they enter the campus. Our safety team will approach people who “don’t look right” (bulky clothing, bags, shifty behavior), with the dual goal of assessing the person as a potential threat, while also trying to make them feel welcome and pointing them toward church resources as needed. Sometimes, people unsure of how to ask for help may avoid contact with others or exhibit other suspicious behavior as they test the waters.

This group of volunteers does not need to be people with military or law enforcement background, although that doesn’t hurt. For our church, the key is that they are passionate about helping other people who are hurting. Done correctly, this step is an invaluable part of church ministry, as well as an additional layer of security.

3. Medical response. The third layer is medical response. We have several medical providers at each service, including paramedics, nurses, physicians and physician assistants, who carry a medical bag during the service to respond in case of an emergency. Most commonly, those emergencies are the result of children falling or running into each other (including my own children ... more than once). Just like any other EMS response, we often treat adults with an acute exacerbation of a chronic medical problem, chest pain, anxiety or shortness of breath. We have developed a seamless process to treat and activate the local EMS system quickly, in order to transfer the patient to advanced care. We have provided maps of our properties with ideal staging locations to the local Fire/EMS department to facilitate faster access to patients in the event of an emergency. Even minor emergencies give us an opportunity to work together as a team – medical, safety and police – to manage an incident, so that if a major emergency ever comes, it is not our first time working together.

We have AEDs publicly accessible throughout the campuses and a trauma kit with a tourniquet in each AED case. We also keep tourniquets in the medical bags that our providers carry along with BVMs, BP cuff and stethoscope, glucometer, shears and bandages. Although most of our providers are advanced care providers, we operate at a BLS level, in order to simplify the legal risk and reduce the cost of equipment.

4. A comprehensive emergency action plan. We also have an MCI plan for each church campus. In the event of an emergency, children are evacuated to a separate area from the adults, security is deployed to strategic areas, and traffic is diverted to allow ambulance access and egress.

We have multiple training events each year with medical and safety teams to practice safety and medical scenarios. All the safety team members are trained in CPR, first aid, and stop the bleed.

We have a large facility with the budget to prepare in ways that a smaller church may not. However, smaller churches will have distinct advantages; for example, if you know everyone, it’s easier to spot someone who is out of place and acting suspiciously.

As religious leaders consider the needs of their congregation, as well as the resources that they have internally to develop good safety and security measures, there is an opportunity for fire, EMS and law enforcement personnel to participate. Remember that in an emergency, we all perform to our lowest level of proficiency, so a well-defined plan for security and medical care and frequent training and practice can make a profound difference in outcomes.

Read next: 7 church security team responsibilities

About the author

Robert Wales, BS, NRP works as the international business manager for the American Heart Association. In his role at the AHA, he manages the quality and development of the AHA’s International training programs. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Commission on Accreditation for Prehospital Continuing Education (CAPCE). Prior to working for the AHA, he served as training officer for Pickens County EMS in South Carolina, where he worked as a paramedic. He can be reached on LinkedIn or at bobby.wales@heart.org.

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