Protecting Houses of Worship in an Emergency Incident

The religious landscape in the United States is remarkably diverse. There are, according to the 2010 Religion Census4, more than 230 different denominational groups – from the Amana Church Society to Zoroastrians – and close to 350,000 congregations. Over 150 million individuals adhere to these groups, and could be in attendance at a house of worship on any given day. While congregation numbers tend to be small in rural areas – typically 100 members or less, there could be 10,000 members or more in congregations in larger cities and their surrounding suburbs5.

In many houses of worship, the most sacred area of the building is called the sanctuary – a word which is also defined as “a place of refuge or safety”. By definition, and no matter what a person’s faith, everyone should be able to feel safe and secure inside a house of worship.

However, religious buildings have been the target of many acts of violence in recent years.

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In fact, in January 2017 the Anti-Defamation League reported that threats to synagogues have increased, along with an increase in anti-Semitic assaults on college campuses.1 In 2019, there were over 1,400 religion-related hate crime incidents reported.2 And while numbers have been rising, these occurrences are not new. Based on data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS), an American consulting group estimated that in each of the 17 years from 2000 through 2016, there were approximately 480 incidents of serious violence at places of worship in this country.3 Further, since NIBRS-reporting agencies only cover about 20% of the nation’s population, the national-level numbers can be assumed to be considerably higher.

The danger to people attending services, as well as those people working in houses of worship, is exacerbated by the fact that these facilities present a soft target to criminals. Churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious buildings are typically designed to be open and welcoming to all individuals. While this is central to the mission of the groups they represent, it also creates a vulnerability. Without any requirement of authority or need to present valid credentials to enter the facility, criminals can easily enter and pose a threat to the large numbers of attendees and workers inside.

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Given this reality, it’s important to take steps to protect people in churches and all other houses of worship. Once an active shooter or other criminal has entered the premises, it is not enough to call 911. Studies have shown that on average it takes 18 minutes for police to respond to a 911 call. When there is an active shooter intent on harm, that is far too long. In an emergency, every second counts, and lost minutes can mean lost lives.

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Even beyond the speed of response, it can take additional time for police to locate an active shooter or other criminal within the facility. Houses of worship often have multiple open areas, hallways, etc., where an assailant could be. Even if it only takes one or two minutes to find them, many more lives could be lost. The best safety software for houses of worship must go beyond simply alerting first responders. Ideally, it will give them a range of vital information about the location of the attacker, the best entrance to use to reach them quickly, maps of the facility to help guide response and more.

Your house of worship safety software should also enable police or other first responders to remotely lock or unlock any doors needed to access the facility or contain the threat. Integration with the public address system will allow them to speak directly to the congregants and to the assailant, further mitigating risk in the situation.

A house of worship should be a safe haven. It is the responsibility of the facility managers and leaders to ensure that their community has a secure refuge where they can find peace and practice their faith.