Preparing for the unthinkable; how churches can develop emergency plans

By Katrina Goforth -

Following the Nov. 5 mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, City of Altus Emergency Manager Lloyd Colston addressed the importance of having an emergency plan during the Local Emergency Planning Committee Meeting Thursday.

Colston told the committee that planning ahead can change the severity of the impact of an emergency, especially that of an active shooter.

In an active shooter incident, lives are in danger in a concentrated area, and the better prepared those working and visiting a house of worship are, the more lives can be saved as demonstrated in Sutherland Springs when a local resident and former firearms instructor, Stephen Willeford, responded to the situation by shooting Devin Patrick Kelley as he left the church causing him to flee the scene.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations reported in an Active Shooter Study of 160 incidents recorded from 2000 to 2013 that even when law enforcement was present or able to respond within minutes, civilians often had to make life and death decisions, and suggested they should be engaged in training and discussions about decisions they may be presented with. At least 107 of those incidents recorded ended before police arrived and could engage the shooter because a civilian intervened, the shooter fled or committed suicide.

Preparing a congregation for such an incident can potentially save innocent lives. The plan could include an evacuation or lockdown procedure with attention paid to disability-related accessibility when choosing shelter sites and primary and secondary evacuation routes.

An effective shelter should have thick walls, solid doors with locks, minimal interior windows, a first-aid kit, communication devices such as HAM radios and duress alarms, according to FEMA.

Planning for an emergency also includes having a mass notification system. This could be as simple as using a familiar term or phrase, sound, lights and electronic communications via mass text or media alerts keeping any language barriers in mind. This also includes an all-clear signal.

Like all plans, they can only be successful with practice and if everyone in the congregation is familiar with them. Sharing those plans with the Emergency Operations Center headed by Colston and Jackson County Emergency Manager Erik Mowbray coordinates everyone involved with emergency response.

Because the best active shooter incident is the one that doesn’t happen, there are preventative measures that can be taken as well.

There is really no profile of an active shooter, but the FBI has found behavioral indicators that should prompt attention from law enforcement and house of worship officials. These include the development of a personal grievance, contextually inappropriate and recent acquisitions of multiple weapons, recent escalation in target practice and weapons training, recent interest in explosives and an intense interest or fascination with previous shootings or mass attacks.

Many offenders were also reported to have experienced a significant real or a perceived personal loss in the weeks or months leading up to the attack such as a death, breakup, divorce or job loss, and few were previously arrested for violent crimes.

For more information about creating a plan contact Lloyd Colston and Erik Mowbray at 580-481-2260.

By Katrina Goforth

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