So last Sunday in our church was a little … different.
There was smoke, bright flashing lights, and loud (read: deafening) noises.
No, it wasn't our worship band (though a good guess). It was the fire alarm that went off just prior to second service.
In the last two years, we've had a few false alarms, but not this time.
The alarm was caused by smoke entering our lobby, and the source of that smoke turned out to be an air handler that we believe overheated.
What happened next?
Our security team cleared the building and insured everyone’s safety.
Our congregation exited calmly yet quickly (45 seconds to clear the entire church! That's 800-900 people of all ages).
People were kind and understanding despite the cold. Parents were reunited with their children within 10 minutes. The fire department showed up fairly quickly and was able to blow out the smoke and verify the building was safe, allowing student ministry to meet Sunday night.
So the whole operation went smooth, but only because we were ready for it.
Throughout the entire process, both security and KidMin volunteers were very visible and appeared in total control which translated into peace and calm for the rest of the people.
Later that day, I had fun reading different parents' Facebook posts about the morning.
I think the comment below reveals the "secret" of why everything went so smoothly.
I thought I'd use this experience to share with you two key elements that helped us stay sharp and prepared.
1) Emergency Policies and Procedures. They are in our training manuals. Every new volunteer gets them and we go over them in the beginning of every school year and summer. This way everyone is in the know.
2) Classroom Cheat Sheet. See the picture below.
This IS our "secret sauce."
We have this simple cheat sheet in every single classroom.
Policies and Procedures are great, but when emergency strikes and your brain goes into a "freeze" mode, you need something that is concise, clear, and right there!
That's exactly what this cheat sheet is.
Putting it together—just a few bullet points per page—forced our team to really sift through all the options and lengthy sentences, eliminate everything that's not absolutely necessary, and end up with short, laser-focused directions.
Having it in every classroom also allows us to encourage our volunteers to periodically go over different pages to make sure the plan of action is fresh in their mind. It only takes 30 seconds of their time before class to go over one of the flaps, but it's these 30 seconds that can make a huge difference in the time of emergency.
If you would like an editable copy of our cheat sheet, it’s included in the Emergency Kit which you can download HERE.
Oh, and if you want to know how we deal with lice (because they do come to church, you know), head over HERE.
By the way, do you think you could guess what has been the biggest issue we run into each and every time fire alarm goes off in our church?
More specifically... moms.
Yep, moms speeding through the church halls like bullet trains to pick up their children.
And in the process, they are disrupting evacuation procedures making it extremely difficult for our volunteers to escort children to safety.
As a result, the proper check out process gets interrupted, making it difficult to keep track of, and account for the students in the class (because mom just grabbed her child without notifying the teacher).
Policies and procedures are great, but the human heart and a mother's instinct don’t fit into the rule-book. :-)
I am telling you this just to let you know that there must be a fast way to calm the congregation, and let them know WHAT their next step is while reassuring them that the best thing they can do for their children is NOT to dash to the KidMin wing.
We are slowly discovering new ways of preventing chaos, and avoiding the bottleneck effect caused by "mama bears," but it's a work in progress.
It just shows how important policies and procedures really are. In a time of emergency, panic sets in and logic flies out of the window. (These mothers think they're doing the best for their children, while in reality they are endangering themselves and others, including their own kids.)
So it's crucial to have volunteers, ushers, and a security team who are trained to keep their cool, and who are able to objectively evaluate the situation, and direct others to safety.
I should mention that we also have an emergency slide that our tech team puts up on the big screen, and all the TVs throughout the building. Why?
Because in the emergency situation people MUST know what their next step is. They must see it and they must hear it.
That is exactly why we also have an emergency script. A pastor or worship leader (whoever happens to be closest to the microphone follows the emergency script the moment the alarm goes off).
As a rule, all emergency announcements to the audience should be made in person from the stage, not as a disembodied voice on an offstage mic. After all, it's all about maintaining calm and preventing panic in the crowd.
In the emergency situations people NEED and MUST see another human who appears calm and in control.
Here’s an example of a fire alarm announcement.
Ladies and gentlemen. The bells that you are hearing are the fire alarms. There is no immediate danger. However, for your safety we must evacuate the church building until the location and nature of the problem can be determined. Parents, do not attempt to collect your children. Our children's ministry volunteers are escorting them to safety as I speak. Please go to the exit nearest your seat and follow the ushers to safe areas outside the building.
Let me finish this blog post with a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin:
No church leader should be without a plan in the midst of a crisis. Knowing what to do when faced with a church crisis can be the difference between calm and chaos, courage and fear, and life and death.
The time to plan is now.
If you do not have a crisis plan in place, develop one. If you do have a plan in place, review, update and practice that plan regularly. Taking action now can save lives, prevent injury, and minimize property damage in the moments of a crisis.
P.S. If you’re taking safety and security of your congregation seriously, take a look at the EMERGENCY KIT—the most comprehensive resource with the most current practical information on crisis management.