Last Sunday was like any other Sunday at our church. Our volunteer teams arrived early, setting up the greeting and hospitality areas; the child check-in stations were set up and ready to go, the worship team rehearsed their songs, and we gathered to review the service and pray. As people arrived, those with children checked their kids into the appropriate classrooms, while others chatted with their friends and headed toward the Worship Center. The Lead Pastor gave an outstanding message on Commandment III (taking the Lord’s name in vain) from Exodus. After the sermon, the band led the church in a time of worship. That’s when it happened. There were flashes of light, but I wasn’t sure where it came from. Then I heard it, the distinct sound of the fire alarm annunciator. “May I have your attention, please? May I have your attention, please? A fire has been reported in the building…”
Not the typical end to a Sunday morning we planned. However, what I saw happen next was beautiful, not perfect, but still beautiful. As I moved toward the exit, I directed a key volunteer to the second floor to ensure the safe evacuation of the children was underway. A security team member followed me to the fire panel to identify the location of the detection. Simultaneously, the Lead Pastor instructed those in the Worship Center to evacuate calmly. The children were already outside and gathering at the designated areas for parent reunification. The children’s ministry team then performed child check out in the parking lot, ensuring we matched the tags on the kids to the parents, just as if we were in the building. For the most part, it went as we planned. But that’s the key; we had a plan. More than having a plan, we practice evacuating at least once a year.
On Monday, the staff gathered together and reviewed what happened. Everything was open for discussion – where was the device that reported a false alarm, why did it convey a fire when there wasn’t one, what did we do well, and where can we improve? We then returned to our procedures and reviewed them, making appropriate adjustments. As the Executive Pastor of Operations, I was delighted with the responsiveness of each team – especially the children’s ministry team. Had this been an actual fire, there is no question in my mind they could get everyone out safely.
It’s easy to become complacent, to think that emergencies will not happen to your church, especially during service. According to the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), from 2007 – 2011, churches and funeral properties averaged 1,780 fires per year. Having the alarm go off last Sunday was a sobering reminder of the importance of keeping everyone safe. We have a plan, practice it, and update it when appropriate.
As a church, we all must operate under strict compliance guidances, making it hard to imagine a church that doesn’t meet its local fire codes. But that’s just the minimum, and we should do more than just the minimum when keeping people safe. With that in mind, here are a few of the items that hit my radar:
- Ensure your church has evacuation maps throughout the building that identify exits, evacuation routes, assembly areas, and the location of fire extinguishers.
- Ensure all routes to exit the building are in good working order and free from obstructions.
- Verify that all exit signs are easily visible, even in the dark.
- Test all emergency lighting to ensure they are in good condition.
- Have a plan to account for everyone after the evacuation.
- Train the Sunday school staff and volunteers on the evacuation route, safe meeting area, and parent reunification process.
- Equip baby cribs with rollers, allowing the infants a safe and speedy exit.
- Train the staff, security team, and ushers to help adults requiring assistance.
Every Sunday, churches spend countless hours planning an experience where regular attendees and guests can worship God. They worship through prayer, music, scripture, and giving. Most of the time, that’s exactly what happens. But churches must also find the time to invest in creating an emergency evacuation plan that includes exit routes, roles, procedures, and training. You may look up one Sunday, see the lights flash, and hear the annunciator. Being prepared is a much better feeling, trust me.short url: