With the shooting incident in Sutherland Springs Texas, the idea of needing to form some sort of “Safety Team” at houses of worship is once again being seriously discussed by church members, congregation boards, and religious leaders. Many are looking at this with the goal of finding an easy or very simplistic solution, such as – let’s get our ushers to take a CCW class, and if someone attempts to shoot people in our facility, our staff will be able to shoot to stop them.

To some, that sounds like a “one size fit’s all” answer – but as a former SWAT team member, and having done event planning and having the responsibility of securing many high profile public events, I can assure you it’s not quite that simple. While many bad guys will be deterred knowing that armed good guys are present at a location, it is never a sure thing. A firearm is only a tool. A tool which, when used by a well-trained individual in specific circumstances, is invaluable – but it is only a tool, it is not a solution to all your problems.

Believe me when I tell you that I am highly supportive of legally armed people carrying firearms to defend themselves or others – I’ve been doing training classes and instruction to increase the number of people who do this for over thirty years. I also completely understand the advantages and disadvantages of having a Safety Team whose members are armed. But before we “go to guns” to resolve problem situations, there are other things that need to be considered.

While we need to accept shooting situations are a possibility, we also need to focus on those situations that are much more likely to occur, and for those effected or involved in responding to them, potentially just as critical. Some religious facilities have already trained Safety Teams to address the more common situations I am about to describe, they are now looking at the next step. Others need to consider establishing a strong Safety Team foundation first, before expecting to respond to critical incidents successfully.

While attending church services in recent months, I have seen a great number of actual or potential life or death situations – most of which could not have been solved by the presence or use of a firearm. Let me explain using the example of medical issues. I have been present, or directly know about, several incidents – when during church services – someone in the building had a medical issue that required immediate treatment and then transport by emergency medical personnel. In one case, bystanders had to start CPR while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. If your Safety Team has firearms, but doesn’t have a plan in place, and training to respond to medical emergencies – those who attend your services are not really safe.

Where will the team members be standing during the services? What training do they have on being aware, alert, and taking action to notice and then avoid problems? What will your safety team members do if the power suddenly goes off? What action will be taken if someone in the third row suddenly stands up and begins yelling expletives and obscene statements toward those in the church. What will your team members do if the fire alarm is activated during the middle of church services? These are very realistic situations, and any of them are much more possible to bring harm or injury to those present, than the very lethal, but still mostly unlikely chance of an active shooter.

The answer to what a Safety Team would do, can be very simple, another example: When the fire alarm goes off, one team member will respond to the annunciator (the box that has a read-out that details the location and type of activity that activated the alarm). The priest, minister, pastor, or the person in control at the head of the service at that moment will encourage those in the facility to remain calm, and tell those present that staff are checking to determine the cause of the alarm. The team member checking the annunciator and other staff can very quickly confirm the nature of the alarm, whether it is false, and relay to the team leader and the person in control at the front of the service if partial or complete evacuation is required.

Another team member calls 9-1-1 to confirm that Safety Team staff on scene are aware of the alarm, and updates the dispatcher as to the building evacuation, describing team members, and explaining where – outside the facility – a team member will be to meet with responding fire department personnel. Other team members are at the exit doors, giving directions where those leaving should go to assemble at an evacuation location until the facility is determined to be safe and they will be allowed to re-enter the building.

When the fire department arrives, a team member briefs firefighters about the nature and location of the alarm. The explain how they believe the system was activated (such as a kitchen cooking accident produced enough smoke to set off the smoke alarm nearby). They give information about how the building has been evacuated, and are ready to escort firefighters to the location of the alarm, and the fire alarm system control panel – which is behind a locked door, but to which the team member has keys.

A quick walk through of the building with the Safety Team escorting the fire department confirms that the alarm was appropriately activated, but the problem has been addressed and resolved, the facility is in no danger, and the building can then be re-occupied. Staff have silenced the alarm, but the annunciator is not cleared or re-set until the fire department can review the information and authorize the system to be re-set.

The Safety Team has demonstrated that they are familiar with the facility, the fire alarm system, and know what needs to be done to protect the safety of the building and all those inside. When the firefighters leave, they do so confident that the facility is in good hands. With basic training of the Safety Team in how to respond to a variety of similar serious situations, comparably successful results will result regardless of what incident transpires.

Power failure – Check – the back-up generator is tested monthly and after only a few seconds half of the normal lights come back on, you don’t have full power, but enough on the back-up to continue the service. Someone slips and hurts themselves while on the sidewalk outside the front door – Check – Jane responds and arrives first. Bob sees Dr. Smith is here today, approaches him, and asks him step to outside to help. John has called 9-1-1 and waits outside the west side of the building to meet with the paramedics. As it turns out it’s not a break – just a sprain, and Mr. Jones will have his wife take him to the emergency room instead of needing the paramedics to transport.

Don’t misunderstand, this is just a starting point, and not the complete picture. There are very few situations that are more chaotic and frenzied as those that combine the sound of gunshots with people panicking and trying to get away from a threat at a crowded event. When all hell breaks loose, you need to have staff who can hold on to some degree of calm and perform their assignments under pressure. Now, just because your team has done well dealing with a few minor problems that doesn’t mean they are completely ready for an active shooter situation. What I’m saying is that working and training together as a team will give them a much better chance of performing well under pressure if a more serious situation occurs.

Here’s something a lot of people don’t know – or it they do know, won’t tell you. In many critical situations, if you have a solid foundation established, are well trained and skilled at the basics, and know what to do when most typical situations happen, not only can you deal with those more common problems, that ability can most often be scaled up to deal with more serious situations. Experts are nothing more than those who have mastered the basics, and can apply them to new and more challenging circumstances.

I’m not talking about hardened professionals who have many years of experience dealing with critical incidents – I’m talking about how to help your volunteers be better prepared should bad things happen. Making a dozen calls to the 9-1-1 operator, having dealt with five or six building evacuations, learning in a classroom setting about what can occur in an active shooting situation, talking to police and firefighters about their needs, and being involved in training scenarios done in their own or similar facilities – all come together to make them as prepared as possible, and be able to react effectively, should the worst case occur.

Having a team trained to deal with the more common problems and typical situations will be a place to begin. In the next posting, I’ll discuss what the next steps are to have your volunteers and your facility better prepared for preventing, or dealing with a multi-casualty incident such as an active shooting situation.