Protecting the greater good from violence

How do we reduce the risk of violence in our churches?

Expert advice from a recent webinar presented by Church Mutual Insurance Company, in conjunction with Firestorm — a nationally recognized leader in crisis management — and ALICE Training Institute

Suzy Loughlin, co-founder of Firestorm

It is difficult to think of the unthinkable — especially when it comes to violence. Yet, just as insurance functions as a means to plan for a bad event, risk management serves a strong purpose when it comes to unexpected violence in the church.

Suzy Loughlin, co-founder of Firestorm®, has been helping churches to manage risk for the past 15 years. Her goal is to make sure that these things don’t happen — but if they do, how to manage it while minimizing the impact felt through the church.

Firestorm recently asked 500 businesses, “How many of you are concerned about violence in your workplace?” Ninety-two percent of those who responded said that they are worried.

“That’s good,” Loughlin says. “Years ago, the numbers weren’t so high. And because they weren’t so high, there were a lot of people that were in denial about whether it could really happen to them.”

Fortunately, there are things that can be done to address the issue of workplace violence.

Heed the warning signs

Frequently, warning signs represent things that you already know, but don’t know what to do with.

“The reality is that instant clarity tends to happen after something happens,” Loughlin explains. “For example, say Fred had an argument with ushers. Another co-worker reported that Fred was upset and he said, ‘You know, you guys are going to be sorry.’ Someone else comments that Fred’s absenteeism has really tanked. These are all things in and of themselves that I bet you don’t look at and say to yourself, ‘I’m worried that Fred is going to go out and shoot somebody.’”

All of these points are valid, she adds; but, when they stand alone, they might not be cause for concern. “There should be a person in place that these items of concern can be told to,” Loughlin advises. “This is part of managing risk — putting together programs that allow others to share information.”

The culture of your workplace / church is an area to focus on. “Culture drives how well people feel about being there,” Loughlin says. This includes employees feeling respected, and being able to be honest with their feedback to supervisors.

“There are all kinds of things that drive your culture; but at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple: Do unto others as they would do unto you,” she adds. “Treat people with dignity even if you’re terminating them.”

This includes having up-to-date policies and procedures concerning weapons, anti-bullying, and other unacceptable behavior at work. Everyone should be trained in these rules. Visible security can aid in risk management; however, how it is used still requires training.

Have an intelligence network

Statistically, according to Loughlin, shooters communicate their intent to at least one person 80% of the time. Sometimes this information is shared on social media. This, she says, is considered a form of intelligence. “There should be a process in place for gathering information and how you respond to that information.”

Certain threats can be interpreted fairly clearly, such as fights, stalking, or date violence. However, some threats remain less clear. “We responded a few years ago to a suicide of a 14-year-old boy at a prestigious school,” Loughlin recalls. “That day, he told two friends that he was going to kill himself, but then he quickly said, ‘I’m just joking.’ No matter the intent, suicide should warrant discussion, as well as intimidating comments or damaging property. Changes in behavior should also be a red a flag.”

Protective factors can also act as an alert. This includes environment, family, and participating in activities, among others. If someone was formerly active and no longer is, it can set off an alarm to look in to. Other protective factors include respect for authority, coping skills, or taking responsibility for actions. The breakdown of these factors can create a vulnerability. This is connected to a person’s “behavior snapshot,” which are social cues of potential issues. Substance abuse, physical decline or poor hygiene could be indicative of a lack of care of one’s own life. As Loughlin emphasizes, any type of suicide risk must be addressed — it’s a high-priority item.

How do you deal with all this information?

“Human nature is that a lot of people don’t like to come forward. They don’t want to be identified. They don’t want to be tied to it,” Loughlin says. “People need to be given a way to come forward to tell you about their concerns anonymously.”

A good example of this is Safe2Tell, a program in Colorado sponsored by the attorney general’s office. 911 operators monitor a call line where you can report a concern. Many people have used this line when reporting suicide risks.

To address behavior risk and threat assessment (BeRThA®), Loughlin says a multidisciplinary group should be in place to help decide whether to screen the person or not — and create a plan moving forward.

“It really begins with awareness training, having an intelligence network and then having a plan,” she says. “This will guide your team of assigned people to process these reports, to investigate them, to figure out what we’re going to do about them, and then ultimately to monitor this.”

Albert Bahn, National Adjunct Trainer at ALICE

Albert Bahn, National Adjunct Trainer at ALICE, helps prepare organizations with the training they need to address an unexpected violent situation. “Every employer, every educator, every educational administrator has an obligation to protect their students, their staff and their employees from foreseeable dangers,” says Bahn.

Greg Crane, founder of ALICE, came up with the idea for the program after the death of Officer Aubrey Hawkins, who was killed while responding to a robbery report of a sporting goods store that included seven suspects. Reflecting on his death, a conversation was sparked about the options for those present during shootings in workplaces and schools. He realized that the current response was to lock down — and he asked himself, “What can we do besides lock down?”

His first thought was to do an enhanced lockdown that included barricading. Then, include people in countering the assailant by moving quickly, yelling, screaming and throwing things; this makes it harder for the killer to use their weapon. Intended victims should also be taught to run. This created a list: Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate. Alert was also added, forming ALICE.

According to Bahn, the program was slow to catch on, because people were slow to accept an alternative to the current lockdown system. “The first time I did a lockdown drill, I recognized the ridiculousness of that response,” he explains. “Why would we lock all 130 classrooms when the killer can only be in one place? It made no sense. When I inquired about it, the response was, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’”

The way that the ALICE program is enacted differs per type of organization, but the standard remains the same. There are three options during an attack: (1) You can run; (2) If running isn’t an option, you can “harden” your area by barricading and preparing to counter; and (3) If you come face-to-face with the killer, you need to make the decision to do what you can to not become a victim.

In short, ALICE teaches that the victims also have to be first responders. “During the Sheridan High School shooting, the killer came in with a loaded semi-automatic pistol and extra magazines,” Bahn recalls. “The reason this incident only lasted 47 seconds is that Coach Frank Hall screamed at the killer as he started to shoot.” The killer ran and was apprehended outside.

The time it takes for police to arrive, even if it’s only five minutes, remains a difficulty — casualties happen quickly. “If we sit and wait for the police, we have to deal with the five to six minutes in which two to four people die per minute,” Bahn says.

Alert. The ALICE program starts with Alert. The alert includes the location and description of the killer. “If you know this information, then you’re potentially able to leave the area,” Bahn says.

Lockdown. Lockdown remains an option if you can’t actively get out of the area, he advises.

Informing. Informing is also part of alerting. This refers to communication between victims, administration and police. There are apps that can help get this information out quickly. If there’s a PA system, calling the killer by name and letting everyone know his location and what he’s doing will actually work in the victim’s favor, by disrupting him, Bahn says.

Counter. Counter is using noise movement or distraction to distract and disrupt the killer. This doesn’t include fighting; it’s a means to create distance. The movement also makes it harder for the killer to hit his targets.

Evacuate. Evacuate should be the first option when there is danger.

Bahn reiterates: “We know that in 86 percent of these incidents, applied force ends the incident. If applied force is going to end the incident, who should be applying the force? We can’t wait for police. The intended victims have to be the first responders. They should use whatever force they’re willing and capable to use.”

Jim Satterfield, CEO and Co-Founder of Firestorm

Crisis management should be considered when training and planning for an act of violence. This includes how to make decisions during a crisis, and communications.

Jim Satterfield, CEO and Co-Founder of Firestorm, was called to Virginia Tech 72 hours after the shooting. There, he encountered 1,500 reporters, 324 media outlets, and 146 satellite trucks.

“A crisis isn’t business as usual. It’s business as unusual,” he says. “All the normal rules that you have to make decisions go out the window. That’s not what you’re going to be able to do. You don’t have all the metrics or all of the information, and you have to make decisions.”

Upon arriving at Virginia Tech, Satterfield immediately put up signs stating, Please honor our grieving — off-limits to the press. This helped to get media out of the dorms, and, in turn, helped the students feel empowered to speak.

In thinking about a crisis management plan for your church, it’s helpful to look at all the decisions and actions you might need to take. Crisis communications refers to what you’re saying and to whom, when and how to deliver these messages. A structure is needed to help dictate how to make decisions in the event of a violent attack.

“We don’t have the luxury of time, here. You must identify threats wherever possible before they become violent,” Satterfield advises. “You’ve got to have an intelligence network. Eighty percent of the time, if someone has ill intent, somebody else knows.”

When a crisis does occur, waiting on communication is the rule of thumb. People will need to know what to do and say. This crisis might not be limited to an active killer — it can also include things like fraud, domestic violence or sexual molestation. The consequences of each crisis will, most likely, be present for quite a while. The first step you should follow when something has happened is to write down what is known — concrete facts. This documentation can help down the line.

Identifying a spokesperson and ensuring that they’ve been trained is a next step. It’s necessary that they know how to handle the media.

“Who are the internal and external parties? What are their agendas? All those elements are going to come out, so we have to start to understand,” Satterfield says. “If this sounds confusing, you’re beginning to understand what it’s like in a crisis. As we move beyond it and we think about it, these are the actions that we would start to take, establishing what happened, identifying a key contact, and identifying brand supporters.”

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Satterfield also recommends having a call center that helps field any questions in response to reports. There can then be a strategy behind who’s taking the calls, and what they’re going to respond. He also uses five stages in planning: pre-action; onset; impact assessment; response and recovery; and post- recovery.

Pre-action refers to what you do before a crisis happens.

Onset refers to what you choose while it’s occurring.

Impact assessment is asking yourself, “How bad is it?”

Response and recovery addresses communication and how to recover as a community.

Post-recovery is the “consequence” area.

Going through different scenarios using these stages can help you know and plan on what you will say in response. “Impact assessment is very important,” Satterfield advises. “Determining the severity of a crisis will change how an organization is going to communicate.”

Three kinds of communications come up while going through the five stages, as well. Coordination is what people should do in the event of a crisis (lockdown, evacuate, lockout).

The second type of communication is dealing with a crisis, and concerns your brand (in this case, your church) and your reputation. For this type of communication, you need to know how to contact and talk directly to your members.

The last type of communication is compliance, which addresses things you’re required to communicate, such as a cyber breach, or a sexual predator. Most of the communications encountered will fall in one of these three categories.

Similarly, there are three messages to use when dealing with a crisis.  Before communicating these messages, you offer support and condolences to the community. Then, you address and establish a “tell the truth” baseline. Message one is: We will not be defined by this event. This allows you to then communicate your mission and what you stand for. Message two is: We’re going to assure you that this will not happen again. This focuses on the future. Message three embraces the families involved.

When formulating your crisis communications plan, you’ll need to predict who the audience is, and what their concerns are. You then tailor your message to each stakeholder. Focusing on three key messages to deliver about any potential subject concerning the crisis will help create clarity when fielding questions.

“There is a maturity model for crisis management,” Satterfield explains. “Stage one, if you’re at that level of an organization, everything comes as a surprise.

At stage two, roles and responsibilities are clear, but defined as needed. Support resources don’t define most issues covered. They’re still supported, but it’s not yet going to operate at a great level.

“Lastly, once it becomes a part of your culture, it’s strategic,” he adds. “A highly efficient and timely decision process anticipates events and needs, and consumes only the resources needed.

“That’s where we ultimately want to go,” Satterfield concludes. “This is an acquired skill just like any other.”

— Reporting by Joyce Guzowski


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