Some of the most daunting environments to keep safe, in the minds of security professionals, are “soft targets.” These places are often populated by larger groups of people and typically lack security measures, making them particularly susceptible to threats. Examples include shopping centers and movie theaters. Among the most vulnerable, however, are houses of worship.
Not only do religious institutions tend to allocate the least of their resources to security measures, relative to other soft targets—they have also been sites of mass shootings in recent history. This places them at the center of national conversation about proactively securing these vulnerable sites.
The Security Landscape
There is no doubting the unfortunate rise of violent crimes against houses of worship. In 2017, a gunman entered the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and killed 26 people. This was the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. In 2018, eleven people died when an anti-Semitic truck driver opened fire on the Tree of Life Congregation synagogue in the worst attack on Jews in U.S. history. And in 2019, an assailant killed 49 people at two separate New Zealand mosques during midday prayers, calling himself a white nationalist “out to avenge attacks in Europe by Muslims,” according to Global News.
Though the Institute for Economics & Peace has found that the number of total deaths resulting from global terrorism is down 52 percent from its peak in 2014, the Global Terrorism Index has noted a “worrying surge” in attacks from far-right groups. These numbers reflect a decline in organized terrorism and a concurrent growth in individual cases of political terrorism.
The problem with houses of worship in particular is that they can be large, sprawling facilities, with various points of access, sporadic hours of use and minimal funds allocated to address their vulnerability. The conception may be that security systems are too expensive an investment, for houses of worship with other monetary priorities. Within the security industry, however, there are ergonomic solutions for houses of worship that can provide peace of mind, without the need, necessarily, for religious leaders to arm themselves.
Technologies Mitigating the Threat
In many cases, security professionals will implement safety measures such as video surveillance systems, motion sensors, access control procedures, or trained security personnel, in order to address the possibility of a threat. Many houses of worship will also limit the access points to facilities to one or two entrances, in order to better monitor who enters and who leaves, during busy hours.
Not all of these solutions can actively or accurately mitigate threats on their own. Traditional video systems, for example, typically only collect footage to review after the fact of an event. As an event unfolds, this information provides next to no real time assistance. Motion sensors and access control technologies, furthermore, are often disabled during hours when attacks are most likely to happen. Even hired personnel cannot typically cover every possible entry point, given tendential budgetary limits.
FEMA’s Guide for Developing High Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship states, “Rapid notification of a threat can save lives by keeping people out of harm’s way.” In order for a religious institution to prevent the most harm possible, it is imperative they consider every option available.
Audio Bridging the Gap
Implementing audio capture devices with video surveillance systems is an effective strategy to increase overall security at houses of worship.
First, audio devices, when integrated with video, give first responders a full picture of an event. If a gunman is recorded shouting before entering a house of worship, remote security staff can listen to what the hostile individual is saying. After hearing any words spoken or directives that may reveal the gunman’s motives, security personnel can quickly assess the situation and coordinate the best tactical response among first responders.
Audio also has the ability to streamline real-time response. Audio analytics, using aggression and explosion detection software, can send alerts to all relevant personnel on site, as well as first responders, in the event that raised voices or potential explosions are detected by the device. This information could prove invaluable, in an effort to mitigate an escalating situation.
Audio devices with two-way capabilities can also prevent crime by screening individuals before they enter a building, communicate with individuals who have already entered, indicating to them that they are being watched, even deterring an individual from committing an offense.
All of these are distinct benefits that come with integrating audio devices into security solutions. Considering the vulnerability of houses of worship, preventative and proactive security strategies are essential—for the safety of congregants who consider houses of worship safe and sacred spaces, and as well to communities already riddled by the effects of violent crimes. These considerations make technologies like these not only instrumental, but essential.