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FEMA advises churches how to prepare for emergencies

Fire crews try to control a blaze at the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina in this handout photoFire crews try to control a blaze at the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina in this handout photo
Fire crews try to control a blaze at the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina in this June 30, 2015 handout photo. The African-American church, which was burned down by the Ku Klux Klan 20 years ago, was the scene of another blaze on Tuesday, officials said, though the cause was not immediately clear. The fire comes amid a rash of fires that have erupted at black churches across the U.S. south, at least two of which have already been declared as deliberate.Photograph by Reuters

In the weeks since the June 17 mass shooting at the historically black church Mother Emanuel in Charleston, S.C., six predominantly black Southern churches have burned. Given the accused shooter Dylann Roof’s reported white supremacist affiliation and the fact that seven of those fires were in, federal authorities are investigating into whether any are hate crimes.

Although authorities, so far, do not believe that the fires are linked, the string of fires has put people on edge, especially as it comes on the heels of a Department of Homeland Security general warning of heightened terror threats for July 4. “Who is burning black churches?” became a hashtag on social media.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held a timely webinar Wednesday aimed at helping congregants and leaders of faith-based and community-based organizations protect their communities and structures, especially in the event of an active shooter situation. The webinar, which emphasized planning, communication, and building relationships with first responders, was attended by more than 1,000 people.

Among the webinar speakers were Katherine Schweit, Chief of the Active Shooter Section, Office of Partner Engagement, Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as three representatives from the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and two representatives from the Department of Homeland Security. Eric W. Treene, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division provided guidance about fires.

The webinar discussed being prepared for all hazards such as flood, hurricane, wildfire, severe winter weather, earthquake, and tornado. For active shooter situations, speakers discussed how individual houses of worship need to assess their weaknesses. “Through partnership with local law enforcement and the protective security advisor, houses of worship can help identify and address vulnerabilities for all hazards, including active shooters,” said Susan Hendrick, press secretary for FEMA.

Department of Homeland Security Center drew from FEMA’s published guidelines in its “Guide for Developing High Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship,” which advise that faith-based organizations have an evacuation or lockdown plan, as well as know how to select good shelter-in-place locations, deciding ways to communicate the active shooter incident to others such as using light signals or text messages, as well as choosing ways to communicate that the buildings and grounds are now safe. First responders need to be advised about these plans, and have the the layouts and photos of the building interiors as well.

Houses of worship may also choose to conduct exercises to prepare staff and congregation for an active shooter scenario. Another option is to form Threat Assessment Teams to prevent observed clues of a potential shooting from slipping through the cracks.

In a shooting, there is no one response to ensure safety, but FEMA’s guidelines advise to act immediately, and to run away if possible. If not, hide, lock and barricade doors, shut off devices, and remain in place until first responders give an all clear.

Of the string of fires in June, two have been confirmed as arsons. A Washington Post report notes that the string of fires isn’t unusually high. “It seems that the reported trend is more a function of our habit of seeking out patterns than any abnormal targeting of black churches,” writes reporter Philip Bump, who notes back in 2000, an investigation of church fires found there were an average of 14 a month.