By Bruce Curley (TACDA board member)
In the early 1980’s I visited Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) throughout the United States. The best ones were located in Texas and Utah. Texans face the most frequent and dangerous threats and therefore must rise to the event. The Mormons are survivalists as part of their religion and due to their history. Otherwise, most Americans are unprepared for an emergency, a state of affairs still, sadly, true today.
One of the most unprepared are churches and churchgoers.
In hopes of changing that, this article includes a template from my church emergency plan that you might use to help your church prepare for emergencies. Over a thousand people downloaded this plan on the former Google website Knol (a unit of knowledge) before that site was taken down, so it may offer something you can use.
I wrote it for my church (St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Poplar Springs, MD). It was written to be used by my fellow parishioners, but the concepts apply to all religious institutions who want to be prepared IN ADVANCE to successfully deal with the multiple tentacles of the threat index.
I wrote this and gave it to Father Mike, the leader of our 1,450 family parish. He, in turn, gave it to the Parish Council (a 12 member group that helps set the policy and manage the finances, groups, programs for the parish. They, in turn, gave it to the two directors of religious education to implement.
Your structure will be different. However, the threats you face are similar. I offer a few What If’s here to get you thinking.
- What if a distraught father who lost custody of his three children shows up at Sunday religious education classes with a hand gun and demands that the volunteer instructor hand over his child? What does your volunteer do?
- What if a bad storm suddenly turns worse and, unlike what the weatherman said, shows a tornado cloud forming a quarter mile outside the religious education building where hundreds of young children, and dozens of volunteers, are teaching the tenants of the faith?
- What if the sky turns ugly and the few inches of snow that were predicted change to a snowfall of 24 inches while your students are in class, and worried parents begin to show up demanding to be able to get their children and leave?
Sound unlikely? I know of instances of each of these…and more. And this is before we even consider fire, hurricanes, shootings, and the repeated statements of multiple jihadi websites that they plan to hit “soft targets” like churches and religious education classes in the West as soon as they can. Given the torture, mutilation, rape, and death al-shabaab just dealt at a shopping mall in Kenya, we should take them at their word.
Granted, you are more likely to face the demands of a snowstorm, flood, fire or deranged spouse than al-shabaab, but this emergency plan template is created to handle the entire threat matrix, be they bad weather or bad people.
When Father Mike asked me to create an emergency plan for the families of our parish, I wrote:
“In response to your request for beginning a safety and emergency preparedness plan for the church, here are a few ideas. I tried to provide what is useful, practical, and mostly free. This is a process that will take some time. It is an all-threats approach (jihad’s, hurricanes, fire, shooting). Hope this is a good beginning.”
Father Mike, like any one in authority in a religious institution, has hundreds of competing demands on his time and talent. I know I am one of many. Therefore, I waited until a real threat was on its way (Hurricane Irene in this case) and presented him with an emergency plan I had been thinking about and writing for years.
Father Mike, the parish council, and most importantly the religious education directors found it useful. It took about two years, but we have a number of measures in place and a parish emergency plan to deal with an emergency now. For that, I thank God.
Personal, Fire and Security Awareness
First, we completed a survey of personal, fire, and security awareness measures to see what we had in place and what we needed to implement.
Take a comprehensive approach to address personal, fire and security situations. Emphasize what is unique about each, but that common strategies for handling them exist. You will need to develop this plan. It should include:
- Fire – what to do and how to do it.
- What to do if a distraught parent shows up (custody battle where, usually, the father is going to kidnap the child).
- Sexual predators – how to identify them, how to keep them away.
- Angry parishioner out of control
- Mentally unbalanced individual
- Criminal entering the building – obvious and not so obvious
- Weather emergency
- Natural Disaster
Effective, efficient and working communication is vital to all emergency plans. We figured out what we had and what we needed in the event of an emergency. Church attendees are fluid. You cannot assume volunteer teachers know each other, even for those who have taught children in a classroom right next to each other for years. Here is what we created:
- Cell Phone Broadcast Message – Before an event, create a list of the cell phone numbers of all parents. Use this list to do a broadcast email or text message if weather or an emergency warrants it.
- Teacher to Teacher – Have teachers exchange their phone number with the teacher closest to them when they teach.
- Staff to Staff – Have staff members exchange their cell phone number with the staff member that is closest to them.
- In Case of Emergency (ICE) – ICE is a program that enables first responders, such as paramedics, firefighters, and police officers, to identify victims and contact their next of kin to obtain important medical information. Staff should program their emergency contact numbers on their cell phones.
- Telephone Contact List – Collect cell, home, work phone numbers and email addresses of all staff and volunteers. Create a one page table with name, cell, home, work phone number and email. Distribute the list all parties listed on the list, Father Mike, and other relevant parties.
- Emergency Contact List – In addition to 911, add emergency fire, ambulance, and police full numbers to a list for Carroll, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery Counties. When you call 911 in this area you waste valuable time explaining what county you are calling from, just to get transferred and transferred again. Dialing the direct number will avoid that problem.
Basic first aid saves lives. Teach as many as possible first aid techniques.
- Teach staff, volunteers, and coaches basic first aid – Enlist a nurse volunteer to teach them, or have the Red Cross teach them during the blood drive.
- Distribute basic first aid kits – Store larger first aid kits in the large rooms (church, gym, cafeteria, and library) and smaller first aid kits in each classroom.
- Defibrillators – Purchase at least one and place it at the entrance where it can be reached from all areas.
Sign up staff for the Emergency Email and Wireless Network. Get notified of an emergency by email, cell and pager. Most emergency notifications will be about the weather, but this system will also notify staff of national and regional emergencies. Go to http://emergencyemail.org/ to sign up.
Emergency Supply Kits
Purchase and distribute a basic emergency supply kits. Many kits are available online. One good source is the TACDA Store at http://www.tacda.org/store.htm
The items listed here are just suggestions. You will have to decide what is necessary, practical and useful. I believe that whistles, water, and food are the most basic and absolutely necessary. Purchase the rest as money permits. (See: http://poetslife.blogspot.com/2012/10/church-emergency-plan-template.html for a complete list.)
Continuity of Operations
Churches, and church employees, are not always the most technology savvy. This is usually because their daily tasks helping to save others morally, physically, spiritually and emotionally leaves them little time to save and backup data and documents. Understandable, but a critical mistake. Here are a few ways to overcome that disaster recovery deficiency:
- Store vital documents in a fireproof box.
- Store critical computer data on backup hard drives.
- Keep backup hard drives at a secure location.
- Give staff a memory stick. Have them keep their on critical data on that memory stick.
Seniors, disabled people, and children have special needs, especially in a power failure or disaster. Using common sense, try to plan for and meet their needs. For example, keep back-up generators for power failures and diabetic foods ready.
One tool to extend the life of refrigerated or frozen items during a power outage is frozen WaterBricks (www.waterbricks.com). WaterBricks are a great way to store water, food, even ammo, or to build furniture or shelter when needed. Most importantly, these bricks can be frozen. If you need to keep insulin cold for a diabetic, they can be a lifesaver during the first few hours and days of a power outage.
Young children also have special needs. Keep a few stuffed animals, toys and games around to occupy them in an emergency.
Ongoing Communication and Encouragement
The immediate threat at my church was a hurricane. With the help of our church secretary, an email was sent to all our parish members in an effort to provide information on preparing for the event. It included these helpful websites to track the hurricane:
Even with an emergency plan in place and exercised several times, we may not have even reached ten percent of the parish families. Therefore, when Hurricane Irene was two days away and people were most receptive, we sent out the following email to all church members on our mailing list:
“Here is some information from our parish emergency preparedness expert:
Prepare spiritually and physically. Pray. Pray always, and if you don’t, an earthquake and major hurricane within one week should make you begin. Here is how you may prepare physically:
Hurricane Irene is forecast to impact the State of Maryland this weekend. Although there are still uncertainties in the final track of the storm, we urge all residents to begin to prepare now. Please remember that this is a large and powerful storm and it will not need to pass directly over Carroll County to cause heavy rainfall and high winds. You can receive up to date information on Hurricane Irene directly from the National Hurricane Center at http://www.nhc.noaa.gov and your local National Weather Service office at: http://www.erh.noaa.gov/phi/. Also, see the VueToo and Meteorological Musings (Mike Smith) link below.
Additional information can also be found at.
Please consider the following items as you prepare for Irene.
- Make sure your family, friends and other important phone numbers are available.
- Know where your family, friends and neighbors are in case you need them or they need you.
- Have emergency supplies ready BEFORE the storm.
- Check your emergency kit. Learn more about what to keep in your kit at http://www.ready.gov
- Ensure that insurance information is current and stored in a safe location.
- Secure any outdoor items.
- Check and clear rain gutters and drains.
- Check the serviceability of sump pumps, if your home has one.
- If you must leave your home, do not cross flooded roadways.
- Ensure that you are registered to receive emergency notifications from the Department of Emergency Services at http://www.ccdes.org
Hurricane Irene updated strike path info and situation…
If you smell gas or suspect a gas leak:
- Leave the area immediately and go to a location where you no longer smell gas, and report the leak by calling 911 if fire rescue is not already on the scene.
In any event, Do Not:
- Light matches or smoke. Avoid use of all open flames.
- Try to locate the source of the gas leak.
- Use any electrical device, including cellular phone, iPods, etc.
- Turn light switches on or off.
- Re-enter the building or return to the area until it has been declared safe to do so by fire rescue personnel”
Did people heed the warning? Well, if you have been at this as long as I have (38 years) you know you get one compliment for every hundred complaints. I will say that when I went around with the Mayor of Mount Airy checking on senior citizens and others after Irene swept through, my mind was more at ease knowing that many additional families were prepared due to these efforts. My fellow parishioners shared that they had felt safer knowing what to do. That was its own reward.