Authorities, experts talk church safety: Event draws clergy, community members

A packed house engages in a church security seminar in McDowell Tech’s auditorium.

DUSTIN CHANDLER/MCDOWELL NEWS

In the wake of several shootings throughout the United States, McDowell authorities held a seminar offering guidance and answer questions on church security and safety on Thursday.

McDowell law enforcement and emergency management members welcomed members of the clergy and community members to the discussion on church safety and security in the event of an active shooter or dire situation.

A big crowd turned out.

“We appreciate the opportunity to work with you to try to make our churches safer and make sure our congregates are safer in going to church,” said McDowell Sheriff Dudley Greene in opening remarks.

The event was organized by local law enforcement and the N.C. Sheriff’s Association as a response to tragedies that have occurred in the country over the last several months, most recently the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas that left 26 dead and 20 wounded and the shooting spree in Northern California that left five dead and 10 wounded.

According to a CNN article, Dallas Drake, a criminologist at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis, lists 147 church shootings between 2006-2016.

“We’ve gotten to a point in time to where we have to think about how to make our churches safer, and I wish I could say that there’s a one-size-fits-all plan for every church,” said Greene.

While church shootings are statistically rare, other emergencies – fires, medical events – are more likely.

Emergency Management Deputy Director and Fire Marshall Craig Walker and EMS Capt. Andrew Pressley talked about safety overall, such as fire hazards, evacuation plans and training among congregational members.

“We’ve had a number of site visits for security reasons, and in our history with medical and fire emergencies, we started looking at these churches and finding things that hadn’t really been thought about, such as fire issues, safety issues, environmental issues,” said Walker, whose suggestions included checking and rechecking fire extinguishers and safety training. “We need to have safety assessments inside and out and we need to make sure we have a defensible space in the event of a fire.”

Among other topics in the emergency discussion was how congregates should report emergency situations to 911 communications without providing conflicting information.

“We need to recognize who in the church can help, who can provide medical care before our emergency responders come to assist, and we need to designate an individual call 911,” said Pressley. “We’ve sometimes had five people in the same location go out and make phone calls, and we received five phone calls from the same location and getting a lot of different information at once.”

The bulk of Thursday night’s discussion came from Kevin Fineberg, Training, Logistics, and SWAT Command at McDowell County Sheriff's Office, who recalled different active shooting situations in the past – such as the Charleston, S.C. church shooting that left nine dead and the Baton Rouge, La. shooting in 2012 that left five dead.

According to studies, Fineberg said, there have been 1,617 deadly-force incidents and 574 deaths that have occurred in churches and religious-based properties since 1999. Motivational factors involved in such shootings reportedly ranged from domestic violence, evil intent, hate (racial or miscellaneous biases) and mental illness.

“The incident numbers, non-accidental fatalities have steadily grown since 2007,” said Fineberg, “and it’s something we need to be aware of, whether it’s McDowell County or New York City.”

Fineberg suggested establishing a church security team and team leader, with planning and oversight handled by pastoral staff, deacons, congregates and vital members to develop and implement a process before, during and after an emergency incident, depending on church layout and procedural preferences. Such information included someone posted outside the door – for emergencies or those arriving late to service – someone to call authorities, training for members and lockdown or evacuation procedures.

“The goal is to assess from existing risk threats and vulnerabilities in a place of worship,” said Fineberg. “Based on recent events, we might see where we need to readjust, rethink some things and, if it’s right, make sure it’s fresh on our minds.”

Such an opportunity, mentioned later in the discussion by Trooper Kirk Hensley of the N.C. Highway Patrol, is Operation Arch Angel, a no-cost church security class that offers religious-based faith groups instruction on emergency readiness and response.

One of the more prominent discussions in the seminar included open carry and concealed carry weapons protocol by church and security team leaders which fall under N.C. General Statute. This was also briefly highlighted in a video shown to attendees, “Run. Hide. Fight: Surviving an Active Shooter Event,” that assessed appropriate options among those caught in an active shooter environment.

“They may be our only options. Some people may be running, some hiding, some fighting in a large scale situation,” said Fineberg.

During the Q&A segment of the event, the topic was continually addressed, most notably in regards to legal ramifications should a weapon be fired and kill or wound a suspect during an active shooting or threat.

“That’s something that can’t be answered until after the investigation,” said Fineberg, “but whether your life was threatened would most definitely be looked at.”

Fineberg also cautioned that while permission to carry a firearm in a church setting would fall under the general statute and firing it would be permissible under a life-threatening situation, those with open carry or concealed weapons to not keep weapons out upon arrival of law enforcement.

“You can see how important it is as congregation members, concealed carry members in here that officers are running in, adrenaline’s high and if we see a gun, we don’t know that you’re not the problem,” said Fineberg. “I don’t want us to get so focused on the firearm aspect, the having-to-shoot-somebody aspect, because there’s a whole lot bigger picture: keeping the threat outside so we don’t have to shoot somebody inside. We have to be smart about it, we have to prepare and we have to consider worst case scenarios.”

For more information on Operation Arch Angel and any forthcoming classes, please contact Stacy Buff, director of Law Enforcement Technologies at McDowell Tech at 828-652-0663.

Information on N.C. General Statute regarding firearms on church and private or public properties can be found at http://www.ncdoj.gov/getdoc/32344299-a2a7-4ae5-99fd-9018262f64ac/NC-Firearms-gun-Laws.aspx.

‘Run. Hide. Fight: Surviving an Active Shooter Event’ can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO04cQBdcHM.

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