Thinking the Unthinkable
Human and natural disasters are realities of life.
We Seventh-day Adventists believe ourselves to have a prophetic mission. The clarion call of the three angels’ messages, found in Revelation 14:6-12, has for 150 years been a call to action in our mission of spreading the gospel of Jesus around the globe. Jesus reminds us that as His children we must always be ready. The lesson in the parable of the 10 wedding attendants (Matt. 25:1-13), five of whom were unprepared for the bridegroom’s arrival, is worthy of our consideration today.
The Day of Preparation
Beyond the spiritual implications in our personal lives, practical life safety questions must be answered by every Seventh-day Adventist church, school, and institution. When the alarm sounds in times of an emergency, will our employees, volunteers, congregations, and students be ready to respond and take appropriate lifesaving actions? Being prepared for times of crisis is part of the stewardship ministry of Adventist Risk Management.
Numerous tragic events have occurred in recent months around the globe. These events remind us that we should never be caught off guard. In fact, our prophetic knowledge has given us insights and warnings that these types of events can occur at any time and in any place.
Consider these words from Ellen White: “The restraining Spirit of God is even now being withdrawn from the world. Hurricanes, storms, tempests, fire and flood, disasters by sea and land, follow each other in quick succession.”*
Adventists are quick to respond with humanitarian support in times of need. The work of ADRA and Adventist Community Services in times of disaster is commendable and in keeping with our mission of humanitarian compassion. But what if the alarm were to sound at your church on Sabbath morning? Would you know what to do, where to go; and would your church leaders be prepared to take appropriate lifesaving actions in that moment of crisis?
Jesus taught the importance of being prepared at all times. “But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matt. 24:43). Being prepared is a biblical mandate.
Again, what would happen if the alarm sounded at your church on Sabbath morning? Would there be confusion and panic? Would there be apathy, as exhibited by the pastor who asked an associate to turn off the fire alarm that went off during the middle of his sermon, so he could continue preaching, and no one moved?
We hope we would see an immediate response by well-trained deacons and Sabbath school leaders taking appropriate lifesaving actions of evacuating the church facilities and moving the congregation to predesignated safe zones until emergency personnel could arrive on the scene to assess the situation. Both of these scenarios actually occurred recently in Adventist churches when the alarm sounded.
Adventists are not immune from natural and human-made disaster events, and we must be prepared and ready to respond.
Twelve Ways to Be Prepared
1. Have an emergency plan. Every organization must have a well-thought-out emergency plan for every facility. Identify the most likely peril you could face at your facility. Events such as fires, tornadoes, and earthquakes can occur like a “thief in the night.” When the alarm sounds, it is time to take action, not to start the planning process.
2. Be aware of your surroundings. As part of your emergency planning, have you included awareness training for all individuals? What should be done if something looks out of place, if a suspicious item is found during a church activity, or if someone unknown is lurking around your premises or seen in an inappropriate area? Encourage greeters and deacons to be watchful at entrances and make regular rounds throughout the facility during services. Employees, volunteers, church members, and students have to be alert for items or actions outside the scope of normal events and report what they observe to the appropriate leaders or authorities.
3. Be prepared for the unthinkable.Most emergencies are caused by fires, storms, and earthquakes. Yet tragic acts of violence also occur at churches and schools. The Seventh-day Adventist Church is not immune to these types of tragedies.
In recent years denominational employees have been killed at Adventist facilities around the world. Your emergency plan should include consideration for appropriate levels of security to help protect your congregation and property.
4. Know where to go.When the alarm sounds, it’s human nature to exit a building by the same way you entered. But what if that exit is blocked and no longer accessible? All exits have to be kept clear of obstructions at all times. Sometimes hallways or exits are blocked with items stored inappropriately. All exits have to be clearly marked and never chained or tied closed. All exits have to be kept clear from all types of obstructions to ensure a safe evacuation.
5. Have local safety officers.Every church should have a key individual appointed as its church safety officer. Identify individuals who may already have training and experience in providing assistance to this important safety ministry. However, church safety officers cannot implement emergency plans by themselves. It requires a team effort of trained employees and volunteers to be successful.
6. Train everyone: employees, volunteers—everyone. Emergency plans cannot be well-detailed guidelines kept in a notebook on a shelf in an office. They must be living documents, internalized by everyone. When the alarm sounds, people must know how to respond immediately.
7. Practice, practice, practice. Internalizing an emergency plan requires a time commitment for both training and practice. Take time to conduct a simulated drill to help train your crisis team and key ministry leaders specifically about their assignments and duties. Once you have taken time to train your emergency response team, conduct practice drills on a regular basis.
8. Practice with the congregation.Why would anyone be annoyed to practice a lifesaving emergency drill during church? Is it too much to ask your pastor to set aside 15 minutes on a Sabbath morning to conduct an emergency safety drill? You would not be annoyed if it was a real emergency!
Schools have safety drills on a monthly basis so students know what to do and how to follow directions that could save their lives. Likewise, adults have to know how to evacuate buildings, or shelter in place, in the event of an emergency. Practicing life safety skills is a vital act of stewardship, even as part of a worship service.
9. Know you will be on your own.Often when an emergency strikes, you are on your own until the storm passes or first responders can begin rescue efforts. Even the best fire and police response can take three to five minutes to arrive on scene. Major storms can overwhelm the capabilities of first responders, and you’ll have to rely on your own first-aid skills and emergency supplies.
Work with local fire and police agencies for assistance in designing your emergency plan. Invite them to visit your facilities and help to identify appropriate evacuation routes, outside meeting areas, and safe zones in your buildings for sheltering in place. They can also identify the type and quantity of emergency supplies that should be kept at your facility.
10. Stay calm and take action.When you hear the alarm or receive a storm warning, time is of the essence! In a fire emergency you often have less than two minutes to evacuate all occupants from the building safely before the area becomes uninhabitable because of extensive heat, smoke, flames, and poisonous gases.
Being alert to weather-related warnings allows time to activate your emergency plan and take appropriate evacuation or shelter precautions as may be warranted. Staying calm will help minimize panic and help others follow appropriate directions that can lead them to safety.
11. Have confidence in others. A well-trained staff can have confidence they are doing the best thing possible for survival during a disaster. Students facing a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, assured teachers they were OK as they sheltered in place. Well-trained teachers had confidence in one another as they moved from their classrooms to more secure areas following instructions given calmly and confidently over the public address system. Many lives were saved because of the brave actions of individuals who had been trained and practiced their emergency drills many times over.
12. Have faith in God. In times of crisis, when we have done everything within our human power, the Lord’s promises are sure: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (Ps. 34:7).
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:1-4).
The Lord’s abiding presence is by our side even through the darkest hours.
Safety First, and Always
Take time today to review your emergency plans to be sure they are current; train staff members about how to respond, and practice safety drills on a regular basis.
Recently one of our churches held a Safety Sabbath and integrated the message of safety throughout the entire service. This included holding a fire drill and inviting the local fire department to participate as part of the service and receive recognition afterward at the fellowship luncheon. This is an excellent example of how you can make life safety part of a stewardship ministry at your church.
For more information about how to develop an emergency plan for your church, visit www.adventistrisk.org.
Has your church or school taken the necessary steps to prepare its people on how to respond in the event of an emergency? Is safety of life and property part of your ministry plans? Will your organization be prepared when the unthinkable happens?
* Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 408.