Shelby Association one of several groups hosting church security conferences

Shelby Association one of several groups hosting church security conferences

The stats for gun violence in churches are relatively low — less than 4 percent of active shooters target churches.

But according to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, it’s still imperative for church leaders to prepare for the unthinkable.

The sheriff’s department, in partnership with Shelby Baptist Association, held a church safety conference Jan. 20 at First Baptist Church, Columbiana, to equip leaders to react if a worst-case scenario ever happened at their church.

Other associations and churches across the state are holding similar events.

“We planned this conference before the tragedy in Sutherland Springs, Texas,” said Keith Brown, Shelby Association’s church and community ministries director. “But there’s been so much interest that we changed our focus a bit to cover active shooting as well as other emergency situations. Our churches must have a mindset of awareness in the future.”

‘Unfortunate trend’

Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego agreed, calling church shootings an “unfortunate trend.”

“Churches must do risk management,” Samaniego said. “Law enforcement is here to help and we need to be on the same sheet of music with our churches as we work together.”

Deputy Debbie Sumrall challenged participants to “take control of your space.”

“We can’t ‘do nothing’ — that’s not a viable option,” she said. “We have to be alert to what happens around us and have plans in place.”

Sumrall said there’s no profile of an active shooter but certain things are known from the incidents already recorded.

‘Avenger mindset’

“Shooters most often have an avenger mindset and they may broadcast their grievances beforehand,” she said. “And they’re mostly male. The average lapse time for law enforcement to arrive at the scene is three minutes, and that’s amazing, but some terrible things can take place in the first three minutes.”

Sumrall spent most of her presentation time explaining the ALICE system response, recently adopted by homeland security in the state of Alabama (

In the ALICE system:

  • A is for “alert.”

“We must be aware of our surroundings and take initiative if something doesn’t look right,” Sumrall said. “Many churches now have security teams in their parking lots to look for threats.”

  • L is for “lockdown.”

Churches can restrict entry to their buildings in emergencies.

  • I is for “inform.”

That means that leaders must tell the congregation in plain language what to do in emergency situations.

  • C is for “counter.”

This has to do with distracting an intruder by shouting or throwing objects or “swarming” the intruder by several people rushing and overpowering him.

“‘Counter’ doesn’t mean that we have a bunch of people firing guns,” Sumrall said. “This is a misconception about the church safety process. Anyone who has a weapon needs to be trained in how and when to use it responsibly. If not, more people potentially can be injured.”

  • E is for “evacuate.”

According to Sumrall, this is always the best option in a dangerous situation, if possible.

In addition to offering training in shooter preparation, Chief Spruce McRee of Brierfield Fire and Rescue spoke about fire safety.

He urged church safety teams to do risk analysis at least once each month, including inspecting electrical cords, clearing out flammable materials and checking fire extinguishers for proper charge.

McCree cited the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) latest statistics from 2007 to 2011 that show $111 million in fire damage to churches in that time frame. NFPA records show 30 percent of church fires result from kitchen use and cooking, 16 percent of fires are intentional, 10 percent are electrical and 4 percent are because of lighting and candles.

Brian Peters, meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, spoke about weather preparedness.

Tornado statistics

Peters said heat and cold kill more people than other weather issues but Alabama has grim statistics on tornado fatalities. Alabama was No. 1 in the nation in tornado deaths between 1950 and 2017 with nearly 700 fatalities. Alabama overtook Texas in the rankings when more than 200 deaths occurred in April 2011.

“A watch means that conditions are favorable for tornado activity and a warning means that a tornado has been sighted,” he said. “Every church needs a weather radio on premises and a plan to move worshippers to a safe location when there’s a warning. And there are several telephone apps available that issue warnings automatically for whatever area you’re in. These are good to have as well.”

GuideStone Christian Resources associate account manager Steven Riggins was a vendor and lunch sponsor at the conference. He also serves as head of the security team at North Shelby Baptist Church, Birmingham.

“We’re seeing more and more churches establishing security teams,” Riggins said. “GuideStone believes this a good thing. We recommend good policies and procedures, and we have materials to help with this. We also recommend that church leaders be familiar with their insurance coverage to help cover losses due to tragedies that might occur.”