We've created these guidelines to help our congregations develop safety plans for violent situations involving active shooters.
Assemble Your Team
Your team should include:
- staff (minister and religious educator)
- a member of the board
- a member of the Safe Congregations Team or a congregant with a background in emergency management/response
- someone who brings awareness and sensitivity to the particular needs of the elderly and persons with disabilities
- the person with primary responsibility for congregational communications
Contact Local Police and Fire Departments
Often, they can offer many resources, including often a walk-through of your building. It is good for them to know who in your congregation to contact in case of emergencies, and to advise you on actions to take during an emergency.
Some small police departments might say they don't have anyone working in this area. Ask them if you can speak with a school resource officer, as they would be very familiar with the processes needed to best protect you all.
Questions to Consider
- How will we evacuate or lockdown personnel and visitors? Personnel involved in such planning should pay attention to disability-related accessibility concerns when advising on shelter sites and evacuation routes.
- How will we evacuate when the primary evacuation routes are unusable? Where will we go when the primary emergency meeting point is compromised?
- How can we select effective shelter-in-place locations? Optimal locations have thick walls, solid doors with locks, minimal interior windows, first aid-emergency kits, communication devices and duress alarms.
- How will those present in buildings and on the grounds be notified that there is an active shooter incident underway?
- What will our instructions be for congregants: Run, Hide, Fight? Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate?
- How will everyone know when buildings and grounds are safe again?
Roles and Responsibilities
- Who will hold these roles and responsibilities?
- Initiating lockdown procedures (primary and alternates)
- Ensuring that the organization has an effective process to announce the presence of an active shooter, to include notifying personnel in other areas of the building (primary & alternate)
- Providing information to first responders (primary/alternate)
- Providing consistent and accurate information to authorities, employees, family and the media after an incident? Who is authorized to speak for the church in an emergency?
- Depending on the laws in your state, the team will need to discuss if the congregation will allow people to carry concealed weapons on congregational property. Most states treat churches like any other private property, allowing those with the legal authority or with concealed carry permits to do so in a church unless prohibited by the property owner. As of January 2018, two states prohibit concealed carrying of a gun in church. Eight other states allow concealed carry of a gun with permission from the church. Twenty-three states allow churches to ban concealed carry if they do so. It is important to know your local laws, check with your insurance provider about any implications to your policy, and have some real conversations about any public stance your congregation wished to take on the issue.
Vetting and Approving the Plan
After finalizing the first draft of the plan, the planning team should present the plan to the appropriate leadership and request feedback and/or obtain official approval of the plan. A congregation’s bylaws and practices will determine whether or not that will require a congregational vote. We also suggest running the draft of the plan by stakeholders in the congregation, such as your worship and religious education committees, as they may see issues of which the drafters were unaware.
Sharing the Plan
Once the appropriate bodies have shared their feedback and signed off on the plan and approval is granted, the planning team should share the plan with local emergency management officials, community partners that have a role in the plan, and organizations that may use the building(s). The planning team should maintain a record of the people and organizations that receive a copy of the plan.
Train staff, volunteers, ushers, and leaders in the protocol, ensuring that they know how to carry out their primary or alternate responsibilities. Schedule regular practice drills so that response becomes familiar and automatic.
Communicating the Policies and Procedures
Be sure to promote awareness and responsiveness in the congregation. You'll know you're doing this when:
- Building/campus maps with designated evacuation routes are posted at key locations.
- Exits are clearly marked.
- Primary and alternate rally points are identified.
- Caregivers, parents, and guardians have clarity about how children, youth, and vulnerable adults will be evacuated or sheltered-in-place during an emergency.
Practicing the Plan
The most well written and carefully crafted policies and procedure are useless if they remain unknown and/or if the congregation does not know how to enact them. Lockdown and evacuation drills are now standard practice for most public and private schools in the United States. Our children and youth may be more accustomed to them than our adults.
Announce to the congregation a week or two before the drill of your intent to conduct an emergency drill. Tell them when the drill will take place, and what is expected of them. This is especially important if this will be the first drill. Unannounced drills should only be performed once the congregation is comfortable with what to do when the alarm sounds.
Holding regular drills helps familiarize occupants with the sound of the alarm system and allows your church to practice evacuation procedures, so in the event of a real emergency, you have rehearsed the procedures and are aware of what to do.
Fire drill requirements are regulated by local state or county government organizations. A building’s occupancy determines the frequency of drills conducted. Churches are referred to as “Assembly Occupancies,” which includes buildings such as gymnasiums, theaters, churches, community halls etc. that are required to hold annual fire drills.
Federal law requires schools to practice fire and tornado drills several times a year to develop preparedness, while various states require facilities with paid, licensed child care to do the same. (Check with your state government to determine where your facility falls under the laws.) These drills work to reduce the disorganization, confusion, fear, panic, and potential injuries that may occur during a live event. Some states have added an additionally required practice drill: the lockdown drill.
Reviewing the Procedures and Policies
The team should annually review the policies and procedures, making updates and revisions as necessary. Laws change and congregations learn from experience. Your regional staff can be a resource to you as you develop and review your plans.