A house of worship may only have minutes to respond to an active shooter. Developing a high-quality emergency operations plan for each church to adapt to their specific needs is one way to prepare for a possible incident.
Several church denominations provide guides for their churches to use. One of the first things suggested is establishing a relationship with local first responders.
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Hale, pastor of the First United Methodist Churches of Laverne and Rosston, has held a couple of conversations with his congregations over the last four years. But recently, he has got more serious from the pulpit, letting them know there is a need to be more concrete in planning and preparation.
“We are at present putting together a plan that is specific for this church,” Hale explained. “We have a set of recommended operations and plans that are on the conference (Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church). And that's what we draw from, adapting to what our specific situation and condition is.”
According to Hale, some primary safety procedures are:
▪ Keeping unused building entries and exits secure with only one primary entrance open.
▪ Assigning a gatekeeper, which is someone at the main entrance to greet people coming in and identify anyone new who appears to be behaving unusually and engaging them in conversation.
▪ A shepherd, or usher, to escort visitors, show them where restrooms are, and seat them near someone who will engage them in conversation.
▪ Sheepdogs, or assigned members of the congregation, to be aware and alert.
“We want to make it a little bit more difficult to simply wander around the building,” Hale said. “The intention is to permit persons who are appropriately trained to carry concealed within the church. The law enforcement that we have as members of the church are asked to be, kind of, point people… What it comes down to right now is that the FBI and others (United States Department of Homeland Security) are telling us that you simply need to have a plan that allows you to engage the intruder and preferably to have a team that is willing to deal with that.”
Active shooters aren’t the only situation Hale is helping his congregation prepare for.
“I am concerned about making sure that children are safe from exploitation, or vulnerable adults,” Hale said. “We have a way of assessing that and dealing with it. One of the things that we do with our children and youth programs is everybody who works with any of those has to have an OSBI background check.”
Before driving a church vehicle or supervising children, youth or vulnerable adults, members go through a program called Safe Sanctuaries. The program is a requirement, helping the church implement policies and procedures to prevent the risk of abuse.
According to Hale, the Conference assesses him and all ministry and clergy members every two years with DMV and OSBI screening.
“At our administrative council meetings, I have requested input from the board members about things they see as security issues, things that they want to deal with,” Hale shared.
Hale noted that he has heard feedback from a lot of folks.
"They're all good thoughts, suggestions and concerns," he said. "I haven't seen any of them that don't fall within conference recommendations.”
Hale said he has a church vulnerability assessment available to him that will be processed over the next several weeks. That assessment will help produce the church’s individualized emergency operations plan.