Hope for the Best but Prepare for the Worst

By Dawn Skjei Cooley

By the time of my first settled ministry (in Louisville, KY), I had served in a leadership capacity of some kind in a number of different UU congregations in multiple states. So when the congregational leadership told me it was time to schedule the annual fire drill service, I was stunned. I had never heard of such a thing before! I think my first response was something along the lines of “Why on earth would we do that on a Sunday morning?” I know that I thought to myself that the church, which had suffered a devastating fire 20 years earlier, was engaging in overkill. I was wrong. Over the course of my ministry with them, we conducted many fire drills, and a few years in we added a regular shelter-in-place drill, too.

We learned a lot from these drills. We learned that the easiest way to exit the building had stairs, and that what we thought would work for emergency exits did not because they exited into a gated courtyard. We learned that the only rooms in the building without windows were a storage room and one restroom, and that if there was a tornado warning, most people would have to go downstairs into the creepy, 150 year old basement.

It might seem ridiculous to do these drills - it certainly did to me when they first brought it up. But the reality is that the people who are most prepared for disasters are the most likely to get through it. Parents needed to know not to go rushing upstairs to the RE wing to get their children - that they were in good hands with our teachers, who would get them where they needed to be. Mobility challenged people needed to know which exits they were to use, or which rooms were accessible to them in case they needed to shelter-in-place. We learned which side of the building would be a safe meet-up area, and that we needed communication mechanisms with people and groups in other parts of the building.

Thankfully, we never had to use what we learned from the drills in real time. But with the increasing severity and frequency of storms, we know that Sunday morning safety can not be taken for granted. The UUA has resources to help congregations engage in disaster preparedness. The newest one is our Guide to Becoming a Safer Congregation, which has a whole section dedicated to Building Safety and Security, as well as a number of very helpful checklists that your congregation can use to examine safety in your building.

In my ministry in Louisville, we found a couple of things helpful. First, we didn’t announce the drills prior to Sunday morning - too many people stayed home. Second, we did announce the drill on Sunday morning prior to the children going to RE (if that was what they were doing that day). We always did the drills towards the end of the service (about 45 minutes in), so we had time for the weekly rituals that were important to us, and usually even a little bit of time for a brief homily/reflection.

My first reaction to being asked to schedule a fire drill during worship was based on my experience, but it was not based on best practices for safety and security. I now understand how important these drills are, even (especially!) on a Sunday morning. Your Southern Region staff want to help you be thriving, successful congregations, and this means disaster preparedness as well. If you have building safety or disaster preparedness questions, please don’t hesitate to give me a call or send me an email. As the wise idiom goes, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

About the Author

Dawn Skjei Cooley

The Rev. Dawn Skjei (SHAY) Cooley believes that Unitarian Universalists are called to "Love the Hell Out of the World" and tries to practice this on a regular basis. She is passionate about helping congregations adapt to the changing cultural religious landscape.

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