Protecting His House

Protecting His House

Long recognized as a welcoming environment, churches now consider protection

Houses of worship are under attack. Since 2012, at least 67 people have been killed in a U.S. church, synagogue, mosque or temple—facilities long recognized as welcoming, open sanctuaries offering support and guidance for those in need. Many religious facilities routinely report crimes such as assault, theft and vandalism.

A Soft Target

Criminals often view houses of worship as soft targets. The mission of these groups needn’t change but for the safety of clergy and congregants, leaders must commit to hardening their facilities against those that would do them harm.

Many houses of worship are now fighting back by hiring armed security guards or off-duty police officers for services and other events. Others are taking advantage of laws in some states that allow congregants to carry concealed weapons while in a religious facility.

However, many security experts preach prevention, not reaction, to deter criminals. Earlier this year, the federal government passed the Nonprofit Security Program which provides up to $60 million to improve security for houses of worship, religious day schools and a variety of other nonprofit organizations. Across the country, local police and sheriff’s departments are conducting training programs aimed at helping congregations better plan and equip facilities for added security.

A good example comes from a Northern California synagogue, with a preschool and K-8 religious school, that has blended electronic security equipment with other security best practices.

A dozen surveillance cameras were installed to monitor the parking lot, all exterior entries and the street fronting the facility. The synagogue’s staff can monitor live video from monitors in both the sanctuary and school building offices.

Employing Best Practices

Fences, gates and signage guide visitors to a rear parking lot and a double-door entry into the main facility. This is the only public entry. All other exterior doors remain locked throughout the day, except when weekly services, weddings, funerals and other events require them to be open.

Facility and staff members have been given codes they enter into a keypad to access the building. A video intercom is also mounted just outside the main entry. Visitors, vendors and parents push an intercom button to gain the attention of office staff. The intercom’s master stations are conveniently located on the desks of the executive director and receptionist, as well as in the common areas of the main and school offices. Each master station’s color LCD monitor allows office staff to see and have two-way conversations with visitors. If the visitor is approved for entry, a door release button is pushed to remotely unlock the door.

Hands-free audio intercoms were installed to link the school’s classrooms and offices with the main office. Previously, teachers requiring assistance had to leave the classroom and walk to the office. CAT-5e cable links each intercom unit to a master station which also powers the system.

Finding a Solution

The integrator ran into a tricky problem during installation. Existing conduits between the main office and the school were nearly full of cable for the cameras and other IT connections, leaving no room for cables from each classroom to the intercom’s central control unit (CCU) near the main office. Tearing out ceilings and walls to run new conduits would have added to the project’s cost and delayed completion.

The solution was running the classroom cables to a room station control unit located in the school facility. From there, only two cables were needed to connect to the CCU. That fix enabled the project to stay within budget and be completed on time.

Horns and speakers were installed in the school play area, two patios, front entry, sanctuary, social hall and main lobby to share emergency messages throughout the property.

Also, each classroom, a social hall and kitchen are equipped with panic buttons. Pushing a button generates a pre-recorded message heard throughout the facility. That message contains a code phrase intended to generate an immediate lockdown without frightening the students. The buttons are placed under clear plastic casing similar to those covering fire pulls to prevent accidental activation. Emergency communications are now deeply imbedded in the facility’s daily operations. The congregation, students and staff routinely use the intercoms as they practice drills to prepare for natural and manmade emergencies.

There are other systems and best practices that add valuable layers of security to help protect a house of worship. Those layers often include:

Access control. Access control systems, which enable employees and regular volunteers to enter locked exterior and interior doors using a plastic card key or personal identification number (PIN) in conjunction with readers mounted outside doors. Unlike mechanical locks with keys that can be easily lost, stolen or copied, card keys and PINs can be deactivated and replaced in seconds and without the costs of a locksmith. Also, access systems provide audit trails showing who has entered which doors and when.

Vestibules. A vestibule, often referred to as a mantrap, is another valuable addition to a secured entry. It provides one last locked barrier between a visitor and the house of worship’s congregants and children, if the facility has daycare and/or a school. Many architects now include mantraps in the design of new religious facilities. A vestibule involves building another wall or two, adding a door with another electric strike lock and a bulletproof glass window with passthrough opening—much like you’d find at a bank teller’s station. The window enables office staff to look for weapons and contraband, while confirming only authorized visitors enter.

Visitor management. Visitor management systems provide another valuable entry check. Once inside a vestibule or an office, visitors swipe their government-issued identification cards through the system. The card’s data is compared with online federal and local criminal databases and sex offender registries. Local watch lists can be created. If the visitor is cleared, the system prints an adhesive ID badge to be worn while the visitor is in the facility. Another benefit of a visitor management system is that staff knows how many visitors are on site in case of an emergency requiring evacuation.

Intrusion protection. Intrusion protection systems use motion detectors, door contacts and glass-break sensors to detect burglars and vandals and sound audible alarms. Sensors should be placed on all exterior doors and at controlled interior entries to rooms containing cash and expensive or irreplaceable religious objects. Systems are even more effective when linked to professional dispatchers in a central monitoring station which can contact first responders when alarms are noted.

Security staff. Security guards add an extra layer of security when deployed on the property during events or when the facility is being used by neighborhood groups such as scouts. A guard service can conduct regular patrols throughout the night and early morning hours before the staff arrives.

Design. Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) includes hardscape such as fencing, lighting, bollards and signage. It also calls for bushes and trees to be kept trimmed to deny criminals easy hiding places.

Policies. Policies and procedures help ensure everyone, from clergy to the membership, is on the lookout for potentially dangerous situations. Advance planning also outlines how staff should handle emergencies to minimize loss of life, injuries and property damage.

Consultant or integrator. It’s also best to work with a security consultant or system integrator with experience meeting the specific needs of houses of worship. These experts often begin with an allrisks assessment to gauge the current security strengths and weaknesses of a facility. An integrator will have the knowledge to help select the systems and services that will maximize a security investment.

Admittedly, security represents a cost most houses of worship would prefer to avoid. But it is no longer enough for congregations to pray for the safety and security of their members. The world has become more violent with less respect for those institutions many hold sacred. These best practices are no guarantee to stop all crime, but they will put houses of worship in a much better position to safely continue their missions.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Security Today.

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