The United States is experiencing yet another natural disaster in the form of Hurricane Harvey.
It is overwhelming to watch the news and see the unbelievable images of the flooding and devastation for the people in Texas.
It is difficult to turn on the news on any day and not see a report of some natural disaster or unexpected emergency.
Wild fires, tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes are just a few of the unpredictable disasters that can impact a community – and churches are not exempt from these unwelcomed tragedies.
Preparing for a disaster is one of those things that is difficult to put at the top of the list of all the competing priorities that a church has.
However, being prepared for the unexpected can save a church precious time when moments count. And, can lay the groundwork for a quick response to an emergency or disaster.
A disaster could be a natural disaster (hurricane, tornado, flood or earthquake) an act of terrorism (think September 11) or an armed intruder (think Charleston Church Shooting).
Each of these examples has its own unique set of challenges but they all share the same need – plan and prepare for the unexpected.
The ever changing world, now requires everyone to be prepared for an emergency. However, most disasters or emergencies don’t allow enough time to come up with a response plan. This is why it is imperative for your church to have a plan in place that can be activated during a time of crisis.
Natural disasters and attacks on places of worship in recent years make this kind of planning essential. This type of planning can also help the church be ready to respond and be back up and running quickly so it can continue to care for its congregation and support those affected by the disaster.
What is a church emergency preparedness plan?
A church emergency preparedness plan is a written document that answers the questions of who, what, where, when and how to get your ministry back up and running as quickly as possible following an emergency or disaster.
Thinking through all the details that answer the “what if” question in any given scenario helps to create the content for an emergency preparedness manual.
For example, what if a tornado hit the church building or what if an armed intruder interrupted a church service or what if the church were flooded?
Planning for an emergency or disaster requires a representative team of your senior leadership, facilities management, information technology and telephone systems.
This team is charged with thinking through all given scenarios and determining the best course of action in each situation. The team then takes the information and organizes it into a binder or electronic record that can be used as a resource in the event of an emergency or disaster.
An emergency preparedness manual can be as detailed as is comfortable or as simple as mapping out some logistical first steps.
The more detailed the plan becomes, the less thinking will need to be done during an emergency when there is typically a lot of chaos and many logistical challenges that need to be addressed.
For example, identifying where a command center would be located ahead of time saves valuable hours or even days trying to locate a gathering place.
Church leaders need to imagine their ministry running without a functioning facility, computer system, communication system or even employee support for days, weeks or even months. Without a plan, a sudden disaster could literally wipe out a church and its congregation. There were many church casualties in the Katrina disaster.
So what are some things your church should be thinking about?
Disasters and emergencies typically have three phases – first response, clean-up and recovery. Mapping out a plan to address each of the phases is what church emergency preparedness is all about. Obviously not all emergencies are the same so all phases may not be needed.
1. First Response
Ensuring the safety and security of the church facilities and providing help to possible victims is the first response phase.
This can include anything from providing first aid, basic living essentials or food and water.
This phase also requires responding to any media questions and having a prepared spokesperson to represent the organization.
Use your church mobile app to send push notifications to members so you can communicate every step of the way!
2. Clean-up Phase
The clean-up phase may include clearing debris, cleaning the facility and preparing the building employees, volunteers or congregants to return.
Depending on the type of disaster or emergency, having a plan for clean-up is essential to a normal return of church operations. If there is no major damage to the facility, a cleaning may be all that is needed to return to normal operations.
3. Recovery Phase
If the damage is extensive, the third and final recovery phase is rebuilding or repairing damage to the facility to get it back in order and ready for the public. Depending on the damage, a rebuilding phase may take days, weeks or months.
If the recovery will be longer term, it is important to identify a location to temporarily have church services as well as a command center where a team can facilitate the recovery process.
What should an Emergency Preparedness manual include?
Well thought out steps of action for each of the three phases of recovery. This is where you identify the who, what, where, when and how. For example, who will speak on behalf of the organization and where will the congregation gather if the church facility is too damaged to hold a church service?
Emergency Contact Information
- Who needs to be contacted, in what order and by whom?
- Phone numbers of key church employees, volunteers or congregants.
- What are the requirements for computer hardware, software and business data back up files?
- Is the network complicated enough for a network diagram?
- What is the telephone system layout?
- Are there blueprints or building diagrams that would be helpful?
Emergency Preparedness Box
An emergency preparedness box should be kept in a separate location and should have contents to help get the church back up and running if the church building cannot be occupied. Some possible contents of the box may be:
- Emergency Plan Manual
- Employee contact information
- Backup files of key accounting and church data
- Copies of insurance documents and policies
- A hard drive with copies of computer software
- Key church volunteer and congregation contact information
- Box with basic office supplies, ie: pens, paper, stapler, tape, etc.
This is simply an example of what could be placed in an emergency plan box. Obviously every organization is different and contents should be customized for your church.
Once the box is created, it is recommend to update it every six months or so to make sure contents are current. Once an emergency plan is in place, it should be tested by going through a fictitious what if scenario.
It is becoming more and more common for organizations to hold what is referred to as disaster drills to test their plans and try to identify holes that need to be improved.
I have worked with teams who have tested their plan by going through a drill and I cannot emphasize how much is learned and what a valuable experience it is. It is definitely worth the time investment.
Lastly, emergencies and disasters are unpredictable at best but investing the time and doing a little planning ahead of time can minimize the chaos of an emergency situation and turn it into a smooth running response process.
Watch this incredible video from a church security camera as a tornado blew through its playground.