by Raul Rivera
After this past weekend’s tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida, many people are once again asking themselves, “What is this world coming to?”
Over the last few days, the Church, as a whole, has done a wonderful job of actually being the Church by loving, showing grace, and mourning with those who were affected by last Sunday’s tragedy.
While this is a good thing, the question more and more pastors are now asking is, “How would my church respond to an active shooter situation?”
It may be easy to think that what happened on Sunday in Orlando could never happen to your church (and God forbid it ever does!). I mean, after all, churches are supposed to be places that are sacred and safe. But truthfully, this is something that pastors and church leaders can no longer afford not to address.
Tomorrow, June 17, just so happens to mark the one-year anniversary of the horrific mass shooting that happened at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. And here we are again, a year later, mourning the loss of more innocent lives.
Today’s blog post is not one about gun policy or the state of the world around us. Rather,today’s post is intended to give you, pastors and church leaders, guidance on how to implement a plan for your church in the event of an active shooter situation.
This is never an easy topic to discuss, but it is one that is becoming more and more necessary.
A guide for churches
Active shooter situations are defined as those where an individual is “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Unfortunately, churches are not immune from this tragedy.
In 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a guide to assist churches in planning for, and responding to, emergency situations. While much of the guide deals with emergency situations as a result of natural disasters, FEMA does give guidance for churches on how to prepare for, prevent, and respond to active shooter incidents.
Next, we will take a look at these responses and how they can be implemented in your church.
Preparing for an active shooter incident
In preparing for an active shooter incident, FEMA’s guide gives three ways to prepare. Let us look at those next.
The guide recommends for churches to create an “emergency planning team”. The responsibility of this team would be to “establish goals, objectives, and courses of action for an active shooter annex.” According to FEMA’s guide, your emergency planning team develops courses of action, and they should consider several issues, including but not limited to:
- How to 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 to evacuate when the primary evacuation routes are unusable;
- How to 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 those present in buildings and on the ground will be notified that there is an active shooter incident underway. This could be done using familiar terms, sounds, lights, and electronic communications, such as text messages or emails. Include in the courses of action how to communicate with those who have language barriers or need other accommodations, such as visual signals to communicate with hearing-impaired individuals. Planners should make sure this protocol is readily available and understood by those who may be responsible for sending out or broadcasting an announcement. Rapid notification of a threat can save lives by keeping people out of harm’s way.
- How everyone will know when buildings and grounds are safe.
Sharing information with first responders
FEMA’s guide stresses that your church’s planning process is not complete until your emergency plan is shared with the first responders in your area.
The guide indicates that “the planning process should include preparing and making available to first responders an up-to-date and well-documented site assessment as well as any other information that would assist them.”
The materials you provide to first responders “should include building schematics and photos of the buildings, both inside and out, and include information about door and window locations as well as locks and access controls.”
According to the guide, providing detailed information to first responders allows them to rapidly move through your church buildings and church grounds during an emergency; to ensure areas are safe, and to tend to those in need.
FEMA’s guide acknowledges that drills for fires and protective measures for tornadoes may be part of routine activities for a church, but far fewer churches practice for active shooter situations. The guide states, “to be prepared for an active shooter incident, houses of worship should train their staff and congregation, as appropriate, in what to expect and how to react.”
The guide also mentions that good planning includes conducting drills that involve first responders. “Exercises with these valuable partners are one of the most effective and efficient ways to ensure that everyone knows not only their role, but also the role of others at the scene.”
Exercises should include “walks through buildings to allow law enforcement to provide input on shelter sites as well as familiarize first responders with the location.”
Preventing an active shooter incident
FEMA’s guide provides two recommendations for preventing active shooter incidents:looking for warning signs and establishing “threat assessment teams.”
Next, we will take a look at each of these recommendations.
FEMA’s guide acknowledges that “no profile exists for an active shooter; however, research indicates there may be signs or indicators.” As a pastor, it is common for you to counsel congregants on a near daily, if not daily, basis. Therefore, the opportunity for you to notice certain warning signs may be there.
The guide states that “specialized units in the Federal Government (such as the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit) continue to support behaviorally-based operational assessments of persons of concern in a variety of settings (e.g. schools, workplaces, houses of worship) who appear to be on a trajectory toward a catastrophic violent act.”
According to the guide, behaviors to be mindful include, but are not limited to:
- Development of a personal grievance;
- Contextually inappropriate and recent acquisitions of multiple weapons;
- Contextually inappropriate and recent escalation in target practice and weapons training;
- Contextually inappropriate and recent interest in explosives;
- Contextually inappropriate and intense interest or fascination with previous shootings or mass attacks;
- Many offenders experienced a significant real or perceived personal loss in the weeks and/or months leading up to the attack, such as a death, breakup, divorce, or loss of a job;
- Few offenders had previous arrests for violent crimes.
Threat Assessment Teams
FEMA’s guide notes that “research shows that perpetrators of targeted acts of violence engage in both covert and overt behaviors preceding their attacks.” Perpetrators “consider, plan, prepare, share, and, in some cases, move on to action.”
The guide suggests that a useful tool to “identify, evaluate, and address these troubling signs is the creation of a multidisciplinary Threat Assessment Team (TAT)” for your church.
The guide explains that a threat assessment team “serves as a central convening body, so that warning signs observed by multiple people are not considered isolated incidents, slipping through the crack, when they actually may represent escalating behavior that is a serious concern.”
Threat assessment teams are more common in college and university settings, especially since the 2007 incident at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Still, FEMA recommends for churches to consider implementing a threat assessment team.
Below are some recommendations from FEMA for your church to consider when implementing this team:
- For the purpose of consistency and efficiency, your threat assessment team should be developed and implemented in coordination with other policy and practices of your church;
- Your threat assessment team with diverse representation often will operate more efficiently and effectively. Team members may include leaders or administrators of your church, counselors, staff, congregants, and medical and mental health professionals, who may be drawn from your congregation;
- Threat assessment teams review troubling or threatening behavior of persons brought to the attention of the team;
- Threat assessment teams contemplate a holistic assessment and management strategy that considers the many aspects of the person’s life. This may include, but is not limited to, information about behaviors, communications, any threats made, security concerns, family issues, or relationship problems that might involve a troubled individual. The threat assessment team may also identify any potential victims with whom the individual may interact.
- The threat assessment team may wish to seek assistance from law enforcement that can help assess reported threats or troubling behavior. (Each FBI field officehas a National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes (NCAVC) representative available to work with your church’s threat assessment team.)
Responding to an active shooter incident
I pray that your church never experiences such a horrific incident, but in such a situation, how should your church members and staff respond? Should such an incident occur, it would most likely happen before law enforcement officers arrived. So, how you and your church respond can make all the difference.
FEMA’s guide recognizes that “no single response fits all active shooter situations; however, making sure each individual knows his or her options for response…will save valuable time.” A survival mindset can help increase the odds of surviving such an incident.
While this is a sensitive and heavy topic to discuss, it may be a good idea to schedule a time with your congregation to discuss this topic and your church’s plan for an active shooter situation. No one knows your congregation better than you, so this can be implemented at your discretion.
Now, in regards to responding to an active shooter incident, FEMA’s guide notes that “there are three basic response options: run, hide, or fight.” We will examine each of these next.
Response #1: Run
According to the guide, if it is safe to do so, the first course of action that should be taken is to run out of the building and far away to a safe location. Your congregation and staff should be trained to do the following:
- Leave personal belongings behind;
- Visualize possible escape routes, including physically accessible routes for individuals with disabilities;
- Avoid escalators and elevators;
- Take others with them, but do not stay behind because others will not go;
- Call 911 when safe to do so;
- Let a responsible adult know where they are.
Response #2: Hide
If running is not a safe option then hide in as safe a place as possible. Best practice is to train your congregation and staff to hide in a location where the walls might be thicker and have fewer windows. In addition:
- Lock the doors;
- Barricade the doors with heavy furniture;
- Close and lock windows and close blinds or cover windows;
- Turn off lights;
- Silence all electronic devices;
- Remain silent;
- If possible, use strategies to silently communicate with first responders; for example, in rooms with exterior windows, make signs to silently signal law enforcement and emergency responders to indicate the status of the room’s occupants;
- Hide along the wall closest to the exit but out of the view for the hallway (allowing for an ambush of the shooter and for possible escape if the shooter enters the room);
- Remain in place until given the “all clear” by identifiable law enforcement.
Response #3: Fight
In concluding its review of response options in an active shooter situation, FEMA’s guide ends with this advice:
“If neither running nor hiding is a safe option, as a last resort, when confronted by the shooter, adults in immediate danger should consider trying to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter by using aggressive force and items in their environment, such as fire extinguishers or chairs… While talking to the congregation and staff about confronting a shooter may be daunting and upsetting for some, they should know that they might be able to successfully take action to save lives.”
Should you allow guns in your church?
Though FEMA’s guide provides some useful information for churches when it comes to implementing a response plan to an active shooter situation, there are still some questions that the guide fails to address.
One such question that I am sure several of you are asking is, “Should I allow guns in my church?”
The only thing that the FEMA guide says about this is, “Each house of worship should determine, as part of its planning process, policies on the control and presence of weapons, as permitted by law.”
There is no easy answer to this question. But as the pastor and leader of your congregation, I believe there are two things that you should consider:
- All 50 states have enacted laws on an individual’s right to legally carry a concealed weapon. It is important that you become familiar with the law specific to your state when considering this question.
- Prayerfully seek the guidance and counsel of the Lord. This decision should not be taken lightly, and guidance from the Lord is a must. If your state permits it and you decide in favor of allowing guns in your church, then you should seek the counsel of a qualified attorney in your state to assist you in drafting a policy that considers your state’s law and who is permitted to carry on church premises. You should also seek the counsel of a qualified attorney in your state regarding any potential liability that could rest upon your church.
“A city on a hill that cannot be hidden”
There is no doubt that the world we live in is in need of the love, mercy, and grace that can only come from our Heavenly Father above. More than ever before, the Church needs the “light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden.” I pray that God gives you and your church guidance and favor in your city and community.