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Safety is becoming a top priority in local churches

A 21-year-old man shot and killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., during a worship service Wed., June 17. While this event occurred over 500 miles away, area churches have been effected. Some churches already had some sort of safety plan in place, and Hartselle Police Chief Ron Puckett suggests that all churches implement some sort of emergency plan. “Every church should have some sort of safety plan,” Puckett said. “These events like the one in Charleston happen with little or no warning and don’t give people much time to think or react. If they have already been prepped for an emergency or have a plan in place, they will be able to quickly react to address the situation. A plan of action is important for any meeting place, not just churches.” Puckett said the Hartselle Police Department offers a free Run, Hide, Fight training program for any group that would like to be prepared. “We offer the Run, Hide, Fight program that is taught in law enforcement agencies across the country,” Puckett said. “It helps prepare individuals and groups for emergency situations that they could use anywhere. It teaches survival in active shooters situations, and we have already had plenty of groups, such as schools and churches, take advantage of this training.” Churches are considered “soft targets” because they are areas open to the public that have little or no security. Other areas such as malls and arenas have security teams and other places such as courthouses have metal detectors and guarded entrances. “Churches are becoming more a target since they are ‘soft’ and shooting instances like this are generally a crime of opportunity,” Puckett said. “Anything to deter a potential gunman would be beneficial. I’ve heard of some local churches hiring off-duty police officers to patrol the building in uniform during services. Others are having a patrol car parked outside the building. Little displays like that can make a gunman change their mind.” Hartselle First Assembly of God has a security team that has monthly meetings and regularly surveys the building during services. The security team leader asked not to be named since their team tries to blend in as much as possible, but he was willing to share how their security team operates. “We have regular practices at least once a quarter where we often take real-world scenarios and learn security tactics from them,” the leader said. “We will look at the Charleston shooting and talk about prevention and containment, but we also look at situations that aren’t highly publicized. We want to be prepared for most any emergency situation, not just an active shooter. We also train for other hostile situations like angry parents or any violent outburst.” The HFA security team works with the police to practice training and work at the firing range. “We have a schedule and when it’s their turn, our team members are armed and have stations,” the leader said. “Most of our plan revolves around the children’s classrooms and how we can keep them safe, but we make sure there are security members in every area of the church. They don’t have any outward identification and we try to blend in so people aren’t alarmed, but each security member wears a badge tucked into their clothing so they could identify themselves to police if they get involved.” The team leader said they have been organized for a little over a year. They aim to keep the team low key, but they feel the team is necessary. “We hope we never have to use our training, but we aren’t those people that believe nothing will ever happen to us,” the leader said. “We are located right on Highway 31, so we have hundreds of cars passing by us every day. I know some people from other churches who are adamantly against having a security team, but we have leadership at HFA that was willing to help organize the training. We want to be able to protect our children and our members if the unthinkable was to happen.” HFA’s security team is made up of volunteers who have an interest in security, whether they have a background in law enforcement, military service or not. They are selective in choosing team members, making sure that each member will handle situations in a way fitting for church security. “Church security is very different from street law enforcement,” the leader said. “You have to handle things differently. We have to balance being a welcoming church with a safety.” Puckett said there were certain precautions churches could take without having a full-fledged security team. “Churches might consider locking most doors and limiting entrance to a few doors with men stationed at those entrances,” Puckett said. “These men can see who is coming in, so visitors are not unaccounted for. People won’t be able to slip in unnoticed. Church security can be tricky because you want to be as welcoming as possible, but there are measures churches can take to protect themselves. We would like to think nothing like this would ever happen around here, but it’s better to be prepared than to be caught in a disastrous situation like that.”