This article will detail a number of ways in which houses of worship can better protect themselves from deadly attacks. It applies to any house of worship and any religion, from mosques, churches and synagogues to temples, shrines and any other type of religious gathering place.
I don’t just want to give you some general, theoretical advice here. What follows are proven, practical methods to protect houses of worship. These are time-tested, experience-tested ideas, strategies and tactics that I have been involved in for fifteen years.
Knee-jerk reactions, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily the worst things in the world, especially if they cause organizations to tighten their security measures. But the main problem with them is that they’re almost always temporary measures that target feelings without properly addressing physical protection. The security enhancements they prompt therefore tend to go away after a while, leaving the organization just as vulnerable as it was before the incident occurred—which is exactly opposite of what you need.
A terrible incident can provide good motivation for tightening security, but rather than letting yourself get carried away with emotional responses, anxiety can be put into much better use if it motivates you to build or enhance a permanent security program, one that takes into account your organization’s operations, character and budget. That way, it’ll still be in place when you actually need it most—before the next attack.
How to balance security with a warm, welcoming environment
Can you bolster security without losing your warm and welcoming identity?
This is not an unimportant question, nor is it a rhetorical one. It’s a question with a very clear and important answer. And based on years of experience, I can tell you that the answer is a resounding yes!
I won’t lie, it’s not always easy, nor cheap, and in some cases there’s a bit of an adjustment period. But I can’t think of a single organization that’s gone through this where members, guests and employees now complain about their environment not being warm and welcoming enough.
For example, I can very clearly remember a time when people worried that installing security cameras would harm their warm and welcoming environment. Now, no one even bats an eye when they see cameras (if they even notice them at all).
Many organizations are also concerned about losing their welcoming, open-door policy if they hire security officers to perform access control. I’ve heard many a complaint from people concerned that nameless security guards will turn their house of worship into some kind of prison. But as soon as they give it a try (and as long as they hire the right security provider), they end up seeing that it’s just Brian or Ajay or Malek or Karen, or Ami, who smilingly welcomes them at the entrance while keeping everyone safe.
I’ve done this myself countless times over the years and have seen with my own eyes countless people go from opposing security to becoming huge fans of it.
Budgets—can You Afford Security?
OK, there’s no way around this—good security will cost you some money.
There are indeed some government programs that can help cover some of your initial costs (or in some cases, all of them). The annual Homeland Security grants for non-profit organizations is a big one, and states like California also have smaller ones like Cal OES.
With that said, however, in order to sustain and maintain a proper security program, you’re going to have to spend some of your own money as well.
Yes, I know it’s difficult, and everyone’s budgets are always tight. Money, much like time, isn’t something that most people and organizations have available, just laying around. So, if you’re going to ask the question “Do we have the money for security right now?” the answer will always be “No”. This is why you have to change the way you think about it. A security budget will never just be sitting around, available for use. A security budget has to be allocated.
Yes, it sometimes takes a bit of time and effort, fundraising and cajoling, but it can be done. Trust me on this! I’ve seen too many organizations, big and small, that supposedly couldn’t afford security but that eventually pulled it off.
When there’s a will there’s a way—and a budget! Every organization has to figure out its own way to allocate a security budget, and how large or small this budget will be. But remember, if you don’t establish a security budget, it means you’re not taking security seriously enough.
You can somehow afford your insurance costs, maintenance costs and payroll costs. The question isn’t whether you can also afford your security costs, it’s whether you can afford not to protect your organization.
Finding The Best Security Solutions
One of the most common—and most expensive—mistakes many organizations make is to leap to security solutions before they properly identify what they need.
Security might not be rocket science but if you leap straight into installation and implementation, you’re very likely to miss certain things and waste quite a bit of money on others. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen organizations with gaping security holes after they’ve wasted tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on badly planned and executed security solutions.
Yes, you have security concerns and you want to address them as soon as possible. But for your own sake, start with a security assessment. Trust me, this doesn’t have to be a long process. I’d recommend going with a professional security consultant but in all honesty, you can also do much of the work yourself. There are even some good—and free—resources for this, like what US organizations can get from FEMA.
Your first step is to identify and prioritize what you want to protect. In every case, your most important asset is your people. Next on the list are things like: property, reputation and environment/atmosphere.
You then want to identify and define your concerns—what are you worried might happen to each asset. We always try to calculate the combined value of two important factors: Threat and Risk. Threat is the potential harm to your asset, risk is the likelihood of that threat/harm being realized. Once you’ve defined things in this way, you’ll be much better positioned to look for security solutions.
In general, security solutions that mitigate risks (lowering the probability of harmful incidents) are your preventive measures. Security solutions that mitigate threats (decreasing the severity of harmful incidents once they’ve started) are your reactive/emergency measures. You’ll want to have both.
The key to finding good security solutions is to ask:
- What am I trying to protect?
- What am I trying to protect it from?
- How do I want to protect it?
A solution, by definition, is a means of solving a problem. If a security provider can’t frame the solutions they offer in a way that answers a security question (Question #3), consider going with a different provider.
The Main Components of a Security Program
OK, so now we get to the actual stuff you’re going to implement. There’s a huge range to these categories, and you might not necessarily want, or need, every single one of them, but here are the basics:
Electronic Security Systems
This covers your burglar alarm systems, security camera systems, access control system and intercom. Larger properties often have some type of Enterprise Solution that integrates various safety and security systems.
Important: Electronic security systems do not a secure property make. Don’t just expect, say, a security camera system to magically protect you. It’s not just about the hardware, it’s about how you use it.
The general categories here (in frequency of use) are:
facility/campus security guards.
Dedicated to property management, access control, people management and incident response.
Special event security.
Higher-level services for special events, Holidays, weddings, parties and more.
As with most other goods and services, you get what you pay for. I’d obviously recommend you spend more rather than less on protective services, but if budgets don’t allow for this, it’s important to set your expectations right. If you only have the budget for a Hyundai, don’t expect it to perform like an Aston Martin.
The question that comes up most often here is whether security officers should be employed on a full-time basis or just during services, special events, Holidays, etc. There’s no clear-cut answer here because it depends on various factors like: how many people are in your facility during a routine day, whether your facility/campus contains a school or daycare center, whether it’s a large and/or well-known organization, whether the environment around it is safe or whether the organization is specifically threatened in any way. I think your starting point should be to have security officers at your special events and large prayer gatherings, and depending on the above-mentioned factors, you should also seriously consider having security officers there on a full-time basis.
Another common question people ask is whether they should have armed or unarmed security officers? Again, there’s no clear-cut answer to this question. I personally have no problem with armed security as long as people understand what it is and what it isn’t. So, let me correct two of the most common misconceptions about it.
Among those who support the idea of armed security, there are people who claim that if security isn’t armed, then it’s not real security, that it’s just a false facade, that it’s “security theater”. This is incorrect because it completely misses the idea of preventive security, and what can be achieved through deterrence by appearance, detection of suspicious activity, exposing of suspicious people and solid access control. And no, once again, I’m not just talking theory here. I have my own experience and that of many others, not to mention countless case studies and incident reports to support this. It’s true that unarmed security cannot guarantee your safety, but guess what, neither can armed security.
On the side that usually opposes armed security is the claim that it will only make the environment less safe. Here too, I can speak from many years of security company experience, employing many armed officers at houses of worship, community centers and schools. I know of no cases where security was compromised due to the officer being armed. Armed security is no more—and no less—than a very strong reactive capability. And if the weapon is carried in an exposed manner, it can serve as a preventive measure as well.
Though armed security tends to polarize people between advocates and opposers, in all the years we’ve been providing it, we’ve never had any issues, accidents or negative repercussions as a result of it, even at organizations that were initially uneasy with the idea.
My company (HighCom) only provides concealed armed security (CCW), which means it only functions as a reactive tool. And though there are some who fear that this might cause the officer in question to over-depend on their strong reactive capabilities and not do a good job at proactive prevention, I have yet to see such a thing in my fifteen years of work in the security industry.
An officer with a concealed weapon can do just as good a job as an unarmed one in preventive security, access control, customer services and all the rest of it. It’s just that he/she also has an extra tool when it comes to emergency reactive measures. This is why I am generally in favor of it, though I will never discount or dismiss the overwhelming majority of security that is unarmed.
Lastly, another common question that comes up is whether community members or congregant volunteers can also provide certain guard duties. The answer to this is an obvious yes, but it comes with a few caveats. Community/congruent volunteers can indeed be good, motivated, and sometimes even experienced and well-trained protectors. And I’ve had the privilege of training and/or working alongside many excellent volunteers. But since this depends on volunteering rather than on professionally accountable, licensed, paid security providers, it can be difficult to put together a solid, consistent, ongoing security program around it.
Networking – Intelligence and information-sharing
Networking with other organizations (of any denomination) is extremely important. When it comes to security, no one needs to go it alone, invent any wheels or struggle in the dark to get crucial information. Reach out to other organizations, ask for advice, and offer to share resources and information. They’ll almost always agree to help and reciprocate. Even among rival or competing organizations, when it comes to security, it’s common to find solidarity and cooperation.
We’re all in this together, and it’s time for this to stop being just a nice-sounding slogan. It’s time to ‘put your money where your mouth is’, except, of course, for the fact that in this instance, it’s not even going to cost you any money.
Any organization with ten employees or more is required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to have a written emergency action plan. Most people already know the basics here (in case of fire, in case of earthquake, etc.), but religious organizations should have more comprehensive procedures that also include active intruder response, suspicious package response and more. This doesn’t mean that the written plan should be book-length, just that it should cover more than just fire and earthquake. In fact, you should keep it as concise as you can.
For best results, you should hire a professional emergency planner for this project, but if you don’t have the budget for this, don’t despair. There are local, state and federal government resources, and even some great non-profit organizations like the Red Cross, that can help you with this—free of charge.
Don’t try to invent the wheel when it comes to a written emergency plan. The resources mentioned above have very good and free templates you can get right off the internet. Adapt a template to your own specific situation, let someone look it over to make sure you got it right and you’ll probably be good to go.
By this I mean security training for non-security personnel.
The basics you’ll want to cover are emergency response (mentioned above) and general security awareness. It’s also useful to cover things like verbal compliance and verbal management of aggressive behavior.
As for drilling, make sure to follow the correct order of: 1) Security plan. 2) Security training. 3) Security drilling. Don’t just drill something you haven’t trained on first, and don’t train on something that isn’t part of an established, written security plan.
Law Enforcement Relationships
This one is also important—and also free.
Get in touch with your local law enforcement agency, ask to speak with the ranking officer or the officer in charge of private sector liaisons, and share your thoughts and concerns with them. You might be surprised to discover that in most cases, not only are they going to be amenable but they’ll be openly appreciative of your reaching out to them. Most police and sheriff departments take community policing quite seriously, and often struggle to make good connections with private organizations.
Get to know your local law enforcement agency, get to know the captain, the lieutenants, the sergeants and the patrol officers. Offer your facility during off-hours (usually overnight) for them to train in. Make it known to the patrol officers that they can drop by any time they need a bathroom break or a cup of coffee (trust me, this one is going to be very appreciated).
Not only will the regular presence of law enforcement officers provide a good preventive security measure but when you have a security incident, you’ll find them very responsive and familiar with your facility or campus.
And yes, some employees, guests or congregant might raise an eyebrow once they see more law enforcement presence, but I can tell you from experience that they’ll get used to it pretty quickly and will then start to really appreciate it.
Policies & Procedures
No, I didn’t save the most boring subject for last, I saved perhaps the most important one.
Policies and procedures are what will direct your staff to implement everything we’ve just covered. You can have the best security measures in place, but if your staff doesn’t use them (or doesn’t use them correctly), they won’t be worth much.
In theory, this might not make much sense. Why would people work against their own security interests? But in reality, people very often find security measures to be uncomfortable and inconvenient. We naturally go along the path of least resistance and if given the opportunity, take short cuts. Strong policies and procedures are the glue that will hold your whole security program together.
An important part of this is to establish who in your organization is in charge of security. If you hire outside security providers, this person should be the main point of contact for them. Depending on the size of your organization, you might also want to establish a security board or committee that will be in charge of making decisions and using and balancing the security budget.
Working security at many houses of worship over the years, I’ve gotten used to people expressing gratitude for my being there along with a regret that my job is necessary in the first place. And though my uneasy reply to this somewhat confusing show of gratitude has always been “Thank you. I agree.” I now wish to convey the same sentiment about this article. I regret the fact that it’s even necessary, and yet, considering the world we live in, I hope you found it useful.
Learn more about this subject—and many others—in my master class on Hostile Activity Prevention.
Utilizing Israeli know-how and delivered by me, Ami Toben, this online course teaches actionable, time-tested methods of prevention, detection and disruption of hostile attacks.