Five Practical Steps to Securing Your Synagogue
The recent attacks on synagogues, churches, and mosques worldwide have highlighted what law enforcement agencies have been warning for some time: houses of worship are soft targets that are under threat. With hate crimes at record highs in the United States, and deadly attacks increasingly making the headlines, houses of worship are scrambling to better secure themselves.
With each attack, our concerns continue to rise. Below are five practical steps that houses of worship can take to quickly improve their security posture:
1 – Control your entrance and interior doors.
While it may seem too obvious to be true, the reality is that most attackers come right through the front entrance. Many houses of worship allow for multiple entrances into their facility as a convenience, but the more entrances you have, the more difficult it is to monitor and control them. Stick to one entrance and target-harden your exterior doors. Be sure that all doors in your facility can be quickly locked down without the need for a key. There are very expensive solutions to make this happen (like automatic lock-down systems), but there are also some very affordable ones that meet fire code and effectively get the job done. In an attempted active shooter attack at a Kentucky church last October, the shooter tried to enter through its front doors but they were locked. He consequently left the facility to attack elsewhere (a grocery store). Everyone inside the church was unharmed.
2 – Train your greeters and all congregants.
While many houses of worship are moving toward armed security (see number five), the reality is that most of these guards do not know who belongs and who does not. However, members of your community and congregation do know who belongs. Having volunteers from the community that can greet newcomers, but also quickly assess and identify oncoming threats, and lock down their doors if need be, is a simple action that can save lives and avert a tragedy. There are many professional and nonprofit organizations out there that have specific expertise in training their greeters. Understanding that civilians can and should fight back if attacked must become a stronger narrative in the Run-Hide-Fight conversation.
3 – Control your egress.
Adhering to the Run-Hide-Fight concept (or some variation) to deal with active shooters requires that you be able to effectively evacuate. Too many houses of worship have hallways and alleyways that are full of clutter and emergency exits that do not effectively open and close. Check your doors to make sure they are working properly and locking properly. Don’t let maintenance prop them open or leave their supplies in the way. Develop a policy to regularly check these doors prior to larger religious and social events on a weekly or daily basis. In the Tree of Life synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, congregants credited their recently cleared exits with allowing safe passage out of the building when the shooting began.
4 – Control your messaging.
There are two parts to this. The first part is, you must have the ability to quickly and effectively communicate to both members of your house of worship as well as law enforcement so that everyone knows there is an emergency in progress. Every second counts in an active shooter event, and notifying the right people is key to saving lives. Secondly, nearly all attackers conduct some surveillance on their target facility beforehand, and exhibit signs of their intended activity prior to launching their attack. Much of this is done online. Be careful posting photos, schedules, and blueprints of your house of worship online without it being password protected. Don’t give out the information on the phone without verifying who you are speaking to. And monitor your social media accounts for any hateful messages.
5 – Invest in armed security.
If you are concerned about active shooters, remember that it helps to bring a gun to a gun fight. Having an armed response to an attacker with a gun is one of the most effective things you can do both to prevent an attack in the first place and from stopping it quickly if one does occur. Regardless of where you stand on gun control in America, the statistics speak for themselves on guns stopping active shooters. When you have an armed guard on site they will usually be able to stop the attack before the police arrive. That saves lives. Just make sure the guards are properly trained, know the laws, and ideally are off-duty or retired law enforcement.
Establishing proper security while fulfilling the mission of remaining warm and inviting is a delicate balance. But it can be accomplished with a combination of human capital, financial capital, and careful planning. We thankfully live in an overall very safe society, but we as a community can and should take steps to improve our security and protect our loved ones.
Dr. Joshua Gleis is the president of Gleis Security Consulting, a leading security firm that has trained and protected hundreds of houses of worship, schools and other institutions around the United States. Learn more at: www.gleisconsulting.com. He is also the author of Withdrawing Under Fire: Lessons Learned from Islamist Insurgencies, and co-author of Hezbollah & Hamas: A Comparative Study.