Securing Your Church Facilities- A Practical Primer

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

The church has proven to be a dynamic institution over the centuries, adapting to the changing times while staying grounded in the fundamental principles that guide its mission. The well-known technology systems for audiovisual communication, widely used in churches for worship, are now joined by the technologies that secure our people and assets. Physical security systems are growing in importance for church facilities across the nation as church pastors and administrators seek the perfect balance between a welcoming environment and a secure facility. They must deal with the often conflicting goals of ministering to the community, protecting the church’s resources, providing a safe environment for employees and patrons, and growing the congregation numerically and spiritually.

Often thought of as a technology solution, good physical security is much, much more than an assembly of gadgets such as card readers, closed circuit TV cameras, and burglar alarms. Understanding how to best secure your facilities starts from a higher vantage point, and that’s where we’ll begin our journey on the topic of Threat Assessment.

The term “threat assessment” can have a scary connotation. Visions of school shootings and terrorism may come to mind. But it is more important to focus on any potential weakness in your facilities and procedures that might be poorly suited to protect against workplace violence, theft, vandalism, and the like.

Threats need not be targeted acts of violence, they could be present in the form of fire hazards or emergency exits that are not up to code. Threats can pose different levels of danger for different institutions, but we all agree that any potential threat to human life must receive top priority. All churches should prioritize their threats according to levels of danger, probability, frequency, and manageability.

The task of threat assessment cannot be taken lightly. The services of a qualified professional must be sought out in many cases. For churches with limited financial resources, facilities, and congregations, the task could be handled adequately through experienced staff and laypeople. Some criteria for determining in-house expertise are professional experience in law enforcement, life safety, facility management, building construction, and security system design. General familiarity with the facility and grounds can also be a determining factor.

Larger churches and those located in high-crime areas should consider hiring a security consultant experienced in both facility design and threat assessment or security auditing. The security assessment should be undertaken without influence from a possible equipment purchase. It should be clear that there is no implied benefit based on the outcome of the threat analysis. The recommendations of a security audit or threat assessment report will include a combination of facility upgrades, policy changes, passive security items, and electronic security systems.

The general security audit process starts by recognizing assets. Things of value and importance can include cash, artifacts, buildings, and processes. Threats to these assets then require identification, classification, and prioritization. Comparing the assets and threats leads to the development of possible countermeasures. Finally, a detailed cost and priority analysis will pave the way to a realistic implementation plan- both physical and procedural. Understand that your implementation plan should include short term and long term goals that are in line with the master plan of your facilities and congregation. The following subject groups can serve as a baseline for assessing threats in your facility.

Identify Valuables – People and Property
Do any items hold great significance or value in the facility and are they protected? One-of-a-kind and original documents should not be exposed to potential theft or vandalism. Any items of intrinsic high value will be targets of thieves, especially those that can be sold easily, such as musical or electronic equipment. Imagine that you are a thief; what would you steal and how much is it worth? Thieves look for high-reward, low risk opportunities. Often, unprotected valuables invite the casual thief to steal.

Vandals seek easy access points, entry points hidden from public view, and poorly lit areas. What are the soft costs and fallout of vandalism or theft in the facility? Think of the critical processes of your organization that could be disrupted such as payroll, bulletin printing, etc.

Understand the people in your facility that require security including staff, visitors, support groups that may meet at night, and children in daycare.

Access Control
Understand every way to gain entry into your facility, both legitimate and unauthorized. If you were an intruder, how and when would you attempt to enter the facility? Low-level operable windows can be an easy point of entry. Also consider employee access to the facility. Are there areas that some employees or visitors should be restricted from entering; are there restricted areas that require escorting these individuals from time to time? Examples might include rooms where money is handled or expensive equipment is stored. If special controlled access is used, such as cipher locks, keypads, or card readers, how secure are these devices if a code or card is lost or if an employee is let go?

Is the perimeter of the property clearly defined and are there physical barriers to funnel traffic through access points? Wooded lots outside your grounds may not create a secure natural boundary. Don’t forget to survey your facility for areas that should be restricted at all times for safety reasons, such as roof access.

Disaster Planning
Although possibly unlikely, create a list of any potential catastrophic events that might befall the facility, and how each event would impact church operations and services. A power outage from a storm might not be a disaster for Sunday services, but a major fire in the sanctuary could displace the congregation for months.

Review the church’s insurance policies – many don’t cover catastrophes such as flooding. Understand where dangerous or flammable materials are stored and if these materials pose risk to human life or the facility. Some government agencies and local utility companies can offer advice to help prevent natural and man-made disasters.

Facility Safeguards
List what protective devices and warning systems are installed in each part of the facility. Detection systems serve to alert occupants and administrators during trouble events and emergencies. Are burglar systems (intrusion systems) installed in any or all areas of the facility? Again, understand what might happen if an intruder gained entry. Review the monitoring support of the fire and intrusion alarm systems. A nuisance alarm may not prevent an arsonist from starting a fire or a thief from grabbing valuables. Many systems can automatically report various emergencies to the local authorities as well as contact church staff via telephone or pager. Understand how long it will take the authorities to respond to each event. Are panic alert buttons located in high-risk areas? Who should respond to alarms like these?

As mentioned before, protection systems like fire suppression are integral to a facility’s security. Other less common protection systems include door lockdowns triggered from a master station when a threat is perceived. Building codes change over time, addressing new life safety issues. Older facilities are usually grandfathered where they lack compliance to new codes until a major renovation takes place. For this reason, many sanctuaries, chapels, and dining halls are not protected by fire suppression systems like sprinklers that are now required in all assembly spaces. These areas should be carefully examined and considered for upgrade to current life safety codes. Review emergency egress, signage, and staff procedures for adequacy. Also note that many decorations and interior finishes can be highly flammable.

Know how the facility and grounds are protected during “business hours.” Define any high risk targets like children playing outside in a playground. The site design should prevent and deter crimes such as theft, assault, and kidnapping. Signage such as “staff only” and “emergency – alarm will sound” can discourage criminals from testing the limits of your facility security. Avoid “imitation” security devices like fake surveillance cameras – smart criminals will know the difference (brazen ones won’t care) and these items can cause legal troubles when incidents occur. A two-person team equipped with walkie-talkies might be required to roam the parking lot during packed Sunday and mid-week services.

Work Atmosphere
Review the relationships between senior staff and employees. Is there a system to address grievances and are resolutions complete and timely? Limit your risk up front when interviewing candidates for positions. Consider running background checks on potential hires. Do any staffers have a rocky employment history? Is your turnover rate unnecessarily high?

Make sure that staff members understand the important boundaries of their employment and how the church will react to theft, lying, or misuse of facilities if uncovered. Guarantee that staff know the importance of the security systems in place, including things as simple as locked doors. Many criminals gain entry to secure areas by following authorized employees (piggybacking) or by posing as delivery personnel. It should be difficult for a visitor to “disappear” once entering the grounds.

Other things to consider include security policies, disciplinary procedures, a security supervisory position, a written book of incident reports, and security procedures development. Controlling entry requires a multifaceted overview: identification for entering “secure” areas, visitor and employee credentials and access, key management, communication systems, asset/property tracking and storage, and shipping/receiving procedures and storage.

Above all else, apply common sense. Facilities in high-crime areas will need different security systems and procedures than the average church. Be open with your congregation and board members about security, since it is a collective effort. Encourage participation from experienced members with vested interest in the church’s vision. The outcome of a thorough threat assessment can be rewarding and enlightening for all those involved.

In the next issue, we will cover the topic of workplace violence and how it applies to the church community.

An excellent reference text on the subject discussed in this article and a source for its contents is Risk Analysis and the Security Survey by James F. Broder, copyright 2000, published by Butterworth-Heinemann / Elsevier Science, Burlington, MA.