Church preparedness

There is a view held by some religious leaders that says that a church is a place of worship; it is a place where God is always present. However, while many may hold this view, one glaring fact that all must acknowledge is that a church, like any other man-made structure, is still subject to the effects of a hazard.

Too few churches have security and emergency plans worldwide. In fact, based on the apparent overall high vulnerability of most religious properties, they are often considered easy targets for terrorist activities since most properties are located in places that either provide easy access for their members and congregations, or have become very vocal in addressing social issues in the community. In addition, these properties are also vulnerable to the effects of natural hazards due to either structural design and/or elevation and physical location near flood plains, shorelines, or volcanic and earthquake zones.

Churches like any other buildings can burn, can be flooded, can lose their roofs in hurricane and tornado conditions; and in the case of earthquakes, collapse, due to structural failure of walls and roofs, trapping or killing parishioners who may be inside at the time of the quake. Traditionally, churches have always been seen as a place where one could request sanctuary during periods of political instability, and as a refuge after a disaster. This role of assisting disaster victims has always overshadowed the fact that even churches can be severely affected by the catastrophic effects of a hazard. Churches can burn just as easily as a home or a business. The physical effects of the event upon church property also has a financial implication for the overall functioning of the administrative structure which, if the church has a full time business office, will be responsible on a daily basis for the maintenance of the building, organising various activities, staff and personnel costs. In order for a church to function, it must have money to finance its programmes and a congregation to attend its services.

Most churches in the region have never established an emergency planning and response committee tasked with preparing their properties against the effects of a hazard, despite the glaring examples of what can happen when disaster strikes. Comments from some religious administrators on this subject revealed that there is a lack of planning on the part of church administrations for the impacts of a hazard. The administrators commented saying that the subject of disaster preparedness was seldom discussed among the church management, and in fact, the issue of even instituting a basic preparedness procedure was never given a high priority within its management plan.

The administrators did confirm however, that against the background of the number of religious properties severely damaged or destroyed in recent disasters, and the attacks on mosques and churches in the Middle East and church burning in the US, that they were going to take a second look at their security and emergency plans.

There are many planning considerations that must be prepared for if a church intends to develop an emergency action plan. One immediate consideration is the establishing of an emergency planning committee; defining the committee’s roles and functions, assigning responsibilities to members, coordinating training programmes for members, including first aid, and conducting drills and exercises that will assist in maintaining readiness.

Larry Knight, Pastor of Church Operations at Medford First Church of the Nazarene, Medford, Oregon, US, states that only 22 per cent of churches in the United States have active security and emergency plans in place. Pastor Knight had queried this issue for his church following a carjacking that had taken place in the church’s parking lot resulting in a shooting on the church property. The man who had been shot had made his way inside the main building where a memorial service had just concluded. The family of the deceased was still gathered in the building and the unfolding circumstances would not allow them to leave for some time. Pastor Knight suggests that church administrators in the United States must be very thorough in their emergency response review process, and that each of these planning areas must be considered when developing emergency plans. He states that congregations expect leaders to take reasonable steps to ensure their safety and security while worshipping or conducting business in the church. He added that even though tragic or disastrous events don’t happen every day on religious properties, administrators simply cannot react to isolated events, but must in fact, be prepared for any and all emergencies.

No church can guarantee avoiding physical damage from a hazard, but it is possible for churches to protect themselves from the loss of critical information, preserving religious and historical artefacts and other related church property. Preparedness in a church can be as similar in approach as preparing one’s home or business.

Examples such as placing fire extinguishers in strategic areas throughout the building, and designated persons trained in their use; emergency lighting in case of power failures during night time meetings and services; alarm systems (visual and audible), shutters for hurricanes and tropical storms, sand bags to mitigate against flooding; and an evacuation plan in case of an immediate threat scenario.

Additionally, the church must also assess its surroundings to determine its vulnerability to any hazard and its potential impact on church property. Religious administrators will also have to examine the issue of public liability and what happens when a church is designated as an approved national emergency shelter.

The administrators must also answer the question of if the building should collapse while functioning as a shelter, who will be responsible for compensating the evacuee for any injuries experienced as a result of the collapse of the property? Will the state assume all liabilities for the church since the Government designated the property as a safe haven from disasters? Will the state authorities provide financing and manpower to assist in its rebuilding?

What would happen if a disaster occurred on a Sunday morning with a full congregation gathered for service? Would the church have a clear plan of action for responding to the emergency? Would the church have teams in place for this eventuality to manage the process?

Would the church have planned for religious service interruptions, emergency medical response, and a communications plan for contacting parents in case the emergency occurred during Sunday school activities? Would it be necessary for the church to develop lock down procedures in case of public unrest and vandalism against church property? Would the church have established child safety procedures including check-in and pick up procedures by parents of children resident in a day care programme or other children’s church activities?

Even though a church may be a place of worship, it can still suffer the effects of a disaster. In accepting this reality, it is important to always remember that the responsibility for emergency preparedness in any organisation always lies at the feet of its managers, and churches are no exception.

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