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Churches and places of worship: security plans and practices

Churches and places of worship: security plans and practices
With places of worship coming under terror attacks once again, church security plans, mosque security, etc., are under scrutiny
Recent terror attacks on religious places have prompted discussions on topics like church security plans and mosque security measures. Places of worship are, by design, locations that are open and welcoming. People who work or worship there innately trust those around them and have an ingrained faith that their deity will watch over and protect them.
Thus, the nature of these sites automatically inserts an inherent security vulnerability for the religious leaders and their worshippers that is all too easy for threat actors to exploit. However, there is still an expectation of security on the part of the worshipper that the facilities must meet.

Current security threats to places of worship

Around the globe, there are a wide variety of security threats to places like churches, mosques, etc. These include numerous human-based
details on church security plans and security in other places of worship
Brian Schwab
Founder and Principal Consultant
threats, such as ethnic or religious extremists, hacktivists, and other cyber-related threats.
According to Brian Schwab, Founder and Principal Consultant at S3SDC, these threats could manifest in various ways, including bombings, arson, active assailants using edged weapons or firearms.
"Further, groups with a social or political agenda could attempt to gain access to the house of worship in an attempt to ruin the facility's reputation, for blackmail purposes or to gain personal information on leaders or worshippers for a variety of reasons," Schwab added. "Finally, given the current global pandemic situation, there is an internal threat of purposefully or inadvertently spreading viruses among the worshippers."

Church security plans to protect people and assets  

Several measures can be taken to secure churches, mosques, and other similar places of worship. These include, but are not limited to, physical security and (potentially) cybersecurity measures, education and awareness training for leaders and worshippers, incident response programs, and pandemic response planning. Schwab listed each of these in detail:
  1. Physical Security and cybersecurity solutions

  1. Search areas equipped with X-ray metal detectors and other scanning devices to detect weapons when people enter the place of worship
  2. Air sniffing sensors to detect explosives and chemical agents
  3. Glass-break, vibration or motion sensors and other intrusion detection devices to detect break-in activity
  4. Access control systems, including high-security industrial locks, to restrict access to controlled areas by unauthorized persons
  5. CCTV cameras equipped with analytics and monitored by third-party firms inside the facility and around the perimeter to seek out known threat actors during scheduled worship times and monitor the local operating environment at all times
  6. Where internet capabilities are present, cybersecurity measures to protect equipment and data, such as personal info on worshippers and financial data from theft, ransom, or other exploitation methods. These measures could also be used to secure communication via encryption between houses of worship and senior religious leaders from being intercepted and potentially re-routed for nefarious purposes
  1. Security awareness training of worshippers

  1. Leaders can arrange and hold either in-person or internet-based meetings with the worshippers to discuss threats, vulnerabilities, and plans to mitigate the risks
  2. Newsletters and mailing flyers can be issued by the house of worship that detail security information of interest to worshippers
  3. Bulletins can be placed on information boards at the place of worship for people to read that would include information on potential threats against them or the facility
  1. Incident response

Responding to an incident is just as important as preventing one. Without a plan in place, chaos will ensue during a security incident, and first responders will have difficulty bringing order from the chaos. Measures that can be taken to improve the quality of incident response at a worship place as part of steps like church security plans include the following.
  1. Armed or unarmed security personnel under:
    1. a contract for services with a dedicated security company or under a Memorandum of Agreement with local law enforcement
    2. volunteer personnel drawn from the community who may or may not have ties to the house of worship. These people should be visibly noticeable as security personnel by uniform or other measures so that any potential threat actor can easily see there are security measures in place at that location
  2. Alert devices and notification procedures should be developed to alert worshippers, including those not in the immediate danger area and first responders. These devices should include both visible and audible alarms so that people who are visibly or audibly impaired can still recognize the alarm
  3. Evacuation plans are a must-have to ensure that authorities can evacuate worshippers quickly during an incident. These plans should include evacuation routes, assembly areas to gather for accountability and to identify individuals responsible for maintaining order along the route and at the assembly areas to minimize panic
  1. Pandemic response

As the Covid-19 has demonstrated, organizations will always need to plan for dealing with a pandemic. A house of worship can be in a much better position to protect both its worshippers and leaders with a plan in place. Measures that can be implemented include:
  1. Deploy thermometers and mobile temperature sensors to detect a worshipper with a higher temperature, potentially indicating an infection that could spread
  2. Where internet capabilities are present, video congregations to ensure worshippers maintain a safe degree of separation while being able to continue to worship
  3. Adding additional worship times with smaller congregations so that all worshippers can still benefit from practicing their religion but lessening their potential exposure to viruses. This measure would also help during a high threat of possible terrorist activity against the site while allowing people to continue their worship practices.

Best practices to secure churches and religious places

Perhaps the most essential best practice is to assess the actual security needs of the place of worship. This includes conducting physical and cybersecurity risk assessments to identify most-likely threats and vulnerabilities. This establishes the baseline for the facility and is the springboard for all other actions like making a church security plan.

Making security checklist

 Develop a church security checklist of measures to mitigate the potential risk for each identified threat. These assessments will also keep the open place of worship from being turned into a fortress (or prison) and help keep the overall cost of security solutions to the minimum needed to mitigate the identified, most-likely risks.

Steps to a church security plan

Next, the place of worship should develop and implement a viable, comprehensive security plan. This plan should include the policies and procedures for both employees and worshippers and present the expected behaviors and actions to be taken in the event of a security incident.
"It outlines the equipment installed (by type and location), the equipment operating expectations, and how the devices will be maintained," Schwab said. "If there are alarms, this plan will specify to whom the alarm notification is sent (i.e., third-party security provider or local law enforcement/first responders). It will also outline reference documents and provide a glossary of terms, so the document is readable and understandable."

Review and update

Once developed, a church/other places of worship plan should be dynamic. If you write it and never look at it, you will never see the expected results, and you will continue to react differently every time there is an incident. There is no need to continually reinvent the wheel, so this plan must be reviewed and updated regularly.
"It is recommended that the reviews occur every four years or immediately following any security incident to ensure that it reflects the current threat environment and any changes needed and lessons learned from incidents are incorporated into the document," Schwab added. "A good quote to remember is "you get what you inspect, not what you expect." 

Evacuation and incident response

 A place of worship must develop, implement, and test an evacuation and incident response plan. Any alarms generated during an incident must be coupled with notification, both of worshippers but also to first responders in the community.
"These alarms may notify a third-party security service or may annunciate directly to local law enforcement or medical services," Schwab continued. "Lighted emergency exit signs must be posted, as well as backup lights that will turn on during any power loss or emergency incident."
You can also display graphic representations of all evacuation routes on walls in the main worship area and any back-of-house sites. Everyone can find them, see the routes, and note the location of fire extinguishers, alarms, emergency defibrillators, escape chairs, and emergency exits.

Effective communication

 Finally, communication is critical. Engaging the community of worshippers on the security requirements and outlining the expectations of both the place of worship as well as the worshippers is critical to the success of the security program.
"This communication will ensure the community is aware of the need for such action and allow for public comment, thus giving them a stake in the plan's success (i.e., gain their "buy-in")," Schwab added. "If the community feels they have a stake in the program's success, they will go a long way to help ensure it is a success."


Places of worship offer a safe place for people seeking to fulfill their spiritual needs, especially in these demanding times. Given the open nature of houses of worship, these facilities offer attractive soft targets for various threat actors.
The presumptive expectation of security on the part of worshippers demands that religious facilities and their leaders take every precaution to protect staff, worshippers, and physical assets while also responding to undesirable events that may occur. Failing to do so only damages the reputation of these facilities and places their congregations at unnecessary risk.
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