2017 gave churches a great number of things to think about. Between the shooting at the small church in Sulphur Springs, TX and the decimation of communities by Harvey and Irma, my own congregation’s prep work on disaster response fell into sharp relief. Did we have a plan for an active shooter? What about a major weather event? Do we have a procedure to follow if a congregant passes out during the sermon?
We all face these realities – emergencies don’t ask our permission to happen first, and they sure don’t care if we’re in the middle of How He Loves when they happen. I’ve spent a couple of months now working on our church’s preparedness plans, and I’ve learned a few things in the process.
Reach out to your local police department.
Our senior pastor is highly active in the local community, so after the incident in Sulphur Springs, he gave me the phone numbers for the Community Development Director at the police department. It took a few days of telephone tag, but I eventually got him on the phone to talk about how they could help us. It turned out they already had a church safety seminar scheduled and gave us all the information we needed.
Reach out to your local fire department.
Because we frequently invite the fire station down the street to our church-wide fellowship meals, we had an established a relationship with the crew. I called them up and asked if they would come and talk to our ushers about handling a medical or fire crisis. Check to see if your fire department is a Fire Rescue (meaning fire and ambulances in the same building) or if there is a separate EMS team (ambulances are sent from a different building than the fire trucks) before you call. If your department is separate, you may need to reach out to each department.
Identify your natural disaster risk and plan for them.
Geography determines what natural disasters your community is most likely to face. Do you know where the tornado shelters are? Is there a protocol to follow if the church floods? Having these things written up, clearly marked, and published in accessible places will help congregants and staff members respond safely and quickly in case of an emergency. In an eight month period between 2016 and 2017, our church flooded three times. The first flood was utter chaos, people frantically calling one another, everyone doing their own thing to clean up the water. By the time the third flood happened, we had established a chain of command, everyone knew where the wet vacs were stored, and everything was documented for the insurance company – correctly this time.
Train a team.
Identify who in your congregation will be the “first responders” for a particular emergency. When it comes to floods, our trustees committee is the first to respond to water in the church, but our usher team is trained to respond to medical emergencies. Every year, we ensure that staff and lay leaders are up to date and trained to use the AED. We’re working to compile a list of the nurses and doctors in our congregation so that in case of a medical emergency, the ushers can identify them quickly.
Publish your plans.
Hopefully you have guests coming to your church and new members joining. They also need to know what to do if disaster strikes. We’re pooling all of this information and putting the basics on a laminated pew insert that will live behind the offertory envelopes in all of our pews. With all of the information in one place, it will act as a reference for anyone who walks into our doors. The more educated our congregation is, the less chaos there will be and the faster the response of the necessary officials will be.
Clearly marked exits, shelters, and fire extinguisher locations are simple and quick steps to start the process of disaster preparedness. Pulling your people into these discussions will alleviate anxieties and ensure that when a disaster does occur, everyone will be ready to respond.