While recent shootings at churches have brought the issue of protecting houses of worship to the forefront of many minds, it is something the Harvey County active shooter focus group has been discussing for more than a year.
Chaplain Jason Reynolds of the Community Chaplain Response Team and Harvey County Emergency Management Director Gary Denny will lead a forum designed specifically to address the concerns and issues of church leaders about how they can prepare for active shooter events.
"We know that active shooter events happen, unfortunately," Reynolds said. "They happen in houses of worship, too."
The Active Shooter Preparedness Forum for Houses of Worship will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 12 in the Family Life Center at First Church of God, 620 Fairview Ave.
"It's really an educational forum and a time to discuss where we've been, where we're at and where our houses of worship can think about going so that they can best protect their congregations," Reynolds said.
"This first meeting is hopefully a precursor to other meetings where we can attend to the concerns of the houses of worship regarding active killers," Denny said. "We're encouraging church leaders to come to this forum to understand what this threat is."
Both Reynolds and Denny are part of the Harvey County active shooter focus group that put together an active killer response policy.
"We've got this knowledge coming out of the Harvey County active shooter group combined with knowledge from experience now," Denny said. "This is information that we're really trying to share with other segments of our community."
They want to make sure houses of worship know what they can do to prepare for an active shooter.
"There are some unique characteristics that churches have to consider in being prepared for this," Reynolds said. "You have to walk that delicate line between being a welcoming community — being there because we love people — and being Fort Knox, where we're overreacting."
With their welcoming atmosphere, churches can be considered "soft targets" for criminals.
"As pastors or shepherds of our flocks, one of the things we do is not only provide for their spiritual nourishment and their emotional care, but also their physical safety," Reynolds said. "...We're kind of easy prey for people who might have evil intent, so how do we as churches harden our facility while at the same time keeping our hearts soft towards people?"
The forum is designed to encompass a wide spectrum of belief systems.
"What we're very aware of is that there will be a number of different theologies and approaches right there in that same room," Reynolds said. "While that will add some context to things, what we want to do is not necessarily dwell on that piece, but really talk about what are practical things that you can do, regardless of what your approach to certain doctrinal issues are."
The formation and implementation of safety teams will be discussed at the forum.
"Some churches may have teams in place; other may not have thought about this yet, because...it always happens to somebody else," Reynolds said.
Preparing for an active shooter means looking beyond the walls of the sanctuary.
"It's not just about what if someone walks in my church with a gun," Reynolds said. "The beginning of the plan begins with the entrance to the parking lot — how can we prevent a person from gaining access to the church to begin with, because by the time that person has entered the sanctuary and there's been nothing in place, it's too late to prevent it and protect as many people as possible."
Emergency management and law enforcement will attend the forum to talk about the county's policy regarding active shooters.
"Emergency management was kind of pivotal within the active shooter group and will remain having a large presence in the delivery of this to our houses of worship," Denny said. "We want to make sure they know what we have to offer."
By informing church leaders of what they can expect from first responders, congregations can be made aware of how they need to react as well.
"Church leaders should know how first responders are going to respond to that, what they can anticipate from law enforcement and a medical response. All of that should be taken into consideration so people won't be surprised when certain things happen or don't happen that they were expecting," Reynolds said.
Reynolds and Denny hope the forum will provide a way for church leaders to discuss their concerns and issues regarding active shooters; while some may feel they are already prepared, others may not.
"It's going to be an interesting conversation and, I hope, a very productive conversation," Denny said.
"Here's the philosophy — be prepared for the worst-case scenario, but also be prepared for everything else," Reynolds said. "Church safety teams shouldn't just be thinking about this and thinking they've got things covered, church leaders should be thinking, 'what if a medical emergency happens in the middle of a worship service' or 'what happens if the tornado sirens go off' or 'do we have a plan for fire evacuation?'"
While Denny emphasized the forum is not a sales pitch, ALICE active shooter response training will be offered on Jan. 6, 2018.
"This definitely is a reality in today's culture and today's society in America," Reynolds said. "We have to be prepared for that."
Lunch will be provided at the Active Shooter Preparedness Forum for Houses of Worship. To RSVP, call Reynolds at 316-587-8052 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.