Protecting His House
Long recognized as a welcoming environment, churches now consider protection
- By Dana Pruiett
- Aug 01, 2019
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
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.