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Steps for handling violence in your church, workplacecomment (0)

April 25, 2013

By Grace Thornton


Steps for handling violence in your church, workplace

It was the most benign of scenes — hundreds of “normal” runners finishing up the Boston Marathon in front of stands of cheering friends and family.

Within seconds, it turned to a bloodbath as two explosions rocked the finish line April 15.

The bombing happened the day before the sixth anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech, which left 32 dead on campus. It was five days shy of the 14th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.

Americans are no strangers to random and sudden violence at any place — schools, movie theaters, even churches.

Baptists grieved with First Baptist Church, Maryville, Ill., when a gunman walked into the worship service and shot and killed Pastor Fred Winters in March 2009. Ten years prior, a gunman walked into a youth rally at Wedgwood Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, and opened fire, killing seven.

Shooters are hard to predict and can cause devastation in seconds, said Lt. Curt Carpenter of the Hoover Police Department.

“Your actions will play a large part in the effects that the shooter has on your facility,” he told a group during a workshop put on by Samford University’s Brock School of Business on April 12.

Once law enforcement arrives on the scene — usually within minutes — they are “rapid and aggressive,” but until they arrive, those in harm’s way only have seconds to act, he said.

To know how to act, churches need to prepare, Carpenter said.

To prepare, they should:

  • 4Conduct a thorough risk assessment and site survey.

“Who do you deal with every day at your facility? Do large numbers of people come and go? Do you have a large group of children?”

Questions like these help you determine the risks, Carpenter said. For example, if a church has a large children’s program or day care, an estranged parent could potentially show up to try to take a child by force, he said.

Identifying these risks and knowing the strengths, weaknesses and layout of the facility can help in preparing a plan of action should a shooter show up, Carpenter explained.

“Based on your site survey, have pathways planned to hit fresh air within a few feet,” he said. “Know exit strategies for all areas, even the parts of the building you aren’t normally in.”

Decide whether it’s best for people in each area to run out or lock themselves in, he said, and have assembly plans in place for designated areas outside for those who do run.

  • Develop effective plans that will work under stress.

For instance, escape routes should be simple to navigate, Carpenter said. “It needs to be really simple things, like your back door doesn’t need to have a combination lock that you have to fumble with while a gunman is walking down the hall toward you.”

  • Train your staff in these plans. Repeat.

Seconds count when responding to a shooter, so train your staff to react quickly, Carpenter said. “As he walks down a hall, acting quickly can mean the difference between him finding an empty room or a room full of people frozen in place.”

Handing staff an employee manual is not training, he said. “Do repetitive actions over and over. One drill is good. Eleven is better. Thirty is even better. Police do drills, so do football players. They have a purpose. Muscle memory works.”

  • Coordinate with law enforcement before a crisis.

“Talk to your local police and ask what they want you to do if there is an active shooter, and then develop and interface your plans with theirs,” he said.

  • Prepare yourself mentally and emotionally as best you can.

Know that, if a shooter appears, he will come when you least expect it, Carpenter said. “Expect it to be loud and have an immediate physical effect on your body. Expect others to flee or freeze — don’t expect them to be a hero and help you, because they may or may not. Expect to see blood.”

And most of all, expect to see your loved ones again when it is all over, Carpenter said. “Don’t settle for anything else. Make it happen.”

And that starts with having procedures and sticking to them, he said.

If a shooter enters your church, Carpenter said following steps — called A.L.I.C.E. for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — should be in your plan. The basic idea is to “run, hide, fight,” he said.

  • Alert.

It can be by code or plain talk, but make sure everyone knows of the danger immediately, he said. React when you hear shots.

  • Lockdown.

If you decide evacuating is not possible, lockdown is the best option, Carpenter said. “Secure the room. This is a semi-secure starting point from which you will make survival decisions.”

He explained that it is “semi-secure” because windows and doors are oftentimes breakable, so you shouldn’t let your guard down even after you’re locked in.

To make it as difficult as possible for him to break in, barricade the door, Carpenter said. Use desks, tables and whatever else is available. He noted that companies such as Wedge-It make small pieces that can be used to wedge doors shut from the inside.

Belts can also be looped into a lasso, pulled tight and wrapped around door arms (the metal at the top of doors that opens like scissors) to impede the shooter’s progress into the room, Carpenter said. 

Once you’ve barricaded the door, get to where you can’t be seen, he said. “Seek concealment or cover if you can. Concealment blocks you from his eyesight, and cover can potentially stop bullets. Choose what you hide behind with that in mind.”

Be quiet, silence cellphones and breathe deeply, Carpenter said. “If you aren’t getting enough oxygen to your brain, you’ll lose cognitive and motor skills quickly, and you need those to react.”

If anyone in the room with you is wounded, begin caring for them as best you can, Carpenter said, recommending that churches train their staff in first aid.

“Anything is better than sitting there watching the blood flow,” he said. “Use anything you can — feminine products, T-shirts, socks — to apply direct pressure to the wound.”

You can also use T-shirts, shoelaces or belts as tourniquets by wrapping them tightly around an arm or leg above the wound to stop the blood flow, he said.

Ideally churches could have a first-aid kit designed for gunshot wounds already stashed in the room as part of their crisis preparation plan, as well as snacks, water bottles and a bucket — perhaps even one filled with kitty litter — for use as a latrine if lockdown lasts for a while, Carpenter said.

For churches building new buildings, planners are available to look at your building plans with an eye for surviving crisis situations. They can help you ensure, for example, that you have good exit paths and the type of door windows that make it more difficult for a shooter to get into a locked room, Carpenter said. 

  • Inform.

As the situation evolves, use any means necessary to pass on real-time information, Carpenter said.

But there have been times in crisis when everyone in a room called 911 to report the same incident and jammed the phone lines, he said. Use wisdom in deciding how much is needed in the situation.

  • Counter.

If you face the shooter directly, use “simple, physical techniques” to confront him, Carpenter said.

“If you choose to fight, you have to be violent and energetic. Don’t swing a purse. Go completely Neanderthal and take him out,” he said.

And if possible, make it a team effort, Carpenter said.

Choose blunt weapons instead of sharp weapons, as the goal is to knock him unconscious if possible, he said. “A knife fight is designed to make you eventually bleed to death. Blunt weapons are designed to immobilize you.”

Use book bags, computers, telephones, potted plants — whatever will knock him out, he said.

  • Evacuate.

“Remove yourself from the danger zone as quickly as possible,” Carpenter said.

The idea of all the preparation is that, through knowing the plan, at the end of the day as many people as possible go home to their loved ones, he said.

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