By Eric Spacek
In times of crisis and emergencies such as hurricanes, floods and power outages, many churches open their facilities to provide shelter to those in need. While such outreach clearly reflects care and compassion, church leaders should be aware of risks, especially if it involves overnight or extended accommodation. Some of these risks include an increased potential for fire, property damage, and liability for injuries to people.
Plan and collaborate
Proper planning will go a long way toward managing an influx of people and preventing some serious problems. First, determine if your church is equipped to be a shelter. You’ll need to implement safety procedures, put rules into place, and train your staff how to handle emergencies.
One consideration for your church is to become a designated American Red Cross shelter. Not only will that organization’s expertise help you establish a shelter, there also can be a measure of liability protection for your church.
Confer with local authorities on their shelter requirements to make sure your facility meets their standards. For example, some require premises to have shower facilities. Check with the fire department to find out the maximum occupancy allowed and other safety precautions required for shelter operations.
To prepare for situations such as a fire, make sure staff and volunteers are trained to help evacuate the grounds. Ensure that exits are clearly marked and all access in and out of the building is unobstructed.
Protect the people who take shelter in your church. Designate a supervisor to manage volunteers and ensure that key workers take turns to stay awake and monitor activities at all times. If necessary, hire security or off-duty law enforcement personnel to screen for illegal substances, alcohol or weapons. For the safety of everyone on site, these should not be allowed on the premises. In addition, limit and secure access to all other areas of the building, and monitor each entrance and exit to the shelter.
To maintain order, establish guidelines for everyone to follow and give people copies of those rules. Those seeking emergency help from your church should adhere to your safety policies. Establish shelter hours. For example, do not allow anyone to enter your premises after 10 p.m. Require people to complete a guest registration form and to sign in and sign out daily. Prohibit the use of weapons, alcohol and drugs on the church’s premises. Many shelters do not permit animals or pets unless they are bona fide service animals for the disabled.
Check which local authorities are responsible for supplying food, water and other emergency items. If it is the church’s responsibility, make sure you are able to obtain an adequate supply of goods and that staff will be available to distribute them. If preparing meals, make sure food is handled only by those certified in food safety. Use sanitary methods in preparing, storing and serving food.
Food is not the only area that requires close attention in terms of sanitation. Bedding, restrooms, showers and garbage removal also should be handled carefully and appropriately. You may want to consider hiring additional janitorial staff for as long as the shelter is functional.
Even with all of these extra precautions in place, illnesses can still occur. You should have already discussed with your team how your church would respond when people contract a communicable disease or become seriously ill. Confer with your local health department on how to best handle this situation. Send people who require medical monitoring to the proper facility.
Maintain a safe facility
Keeping your facility in proper working condition is always important, but it becomes imperative when you have increased traffic at your site. Inspect and monitor interior and exterior walking surfaces to make sure they are in good condition, adequately lit, and free of slip, trip and fall hazards. Consider the requirements of people with special needs, such as the elderly, or those with wheelchairs and walkers, and plan accordingly so you will be able to accommodate them.
Taking care of those in need during a crisis is oftentimes a natural extension of your ministry. However, it is crucial that you consider the risks that come along with opening your doors to the community. Make sure your leadership team is making every effort to minimize those risks.
Eric Spacek is senior risk manager at GuideOne Insurance, West Des Moines, IA, and was a liability litigation trial attorney in Washington, D.C. www.GuideOne.com