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Ohio Gives Houses of Worship Toolkit to Prep for Aggressors

The Houses of Worship: Targeted Disruption Tabletop Exercise Toolkit follows three previous guides to help plan for acts of aggression in various settings, including houses of worship, higher education, malls and businesses.

by Jim McKay / January 9, 2019

The shooting that killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 was the closest such incident in proximity to Ohio, but recognition that houses of worship all over have become soft targets prompted the Ohio Emergency Management Agency (EMA) to develop a toolkit to help places of worship prepare for such a scenario.

The Houses of Worship: Targeted Disruption Tabletop Exercise Toolkit is the latest such tool developed by EMA to help entities prepare for active shooters or other disasters. EMA adds this toolkit to its previous three: Mall Active Shooter; Business Continuity; and the Higher Education Active Aggressor Tabletop Exercise Toolkit.

The House of Worship toolkit provides any house of worship the information and a template of sorts for developing plans and exercises to help prepare for a “targeted disruption” like an active shooter situation. A week after the toolkit was released, there were more than 700 downloads from more than 30 states and two countries. That is more downloads than any of the previous toolkits have had.

EMA Executive Director Sima Merick said timing is probably a big reason why. “We’ve seen an uptick around the nation,” she said. “It seems like there is this aggressive posture with our houses of worship and our faith-based organizations.”

She said the plan for the toolkit had been in the works even before recent events, though. Although there wasn’t a direct request for EMA to produce such a tool, the faith-based community had been asking questions about how to begin conversations around events like an active shooter, questions like, “Where do we get information about this?” and “How do we get the right people to the table?”

“So we knew there was a gap and we needed to fill it,” Merick said.
The toolkits include planning documents; recommended timelines; presentation documents; and a case study of recent incidents, including aggressor demographics, motivation and behavioral profiles.

“The toolkits really include all the documents that someone who didn’t know how to do exercises would be able to walk in and share with a group that they’re going to respond with,” said David Nunley, training and exercise supervisor with EMA.

The toolkits include a situation manual for participants, a facilitator guide and a PowerPoint that contains statistics on the profiles of people who commit crimes against houses of worship. It includes agendas, minutes for initial and planning meetings, and information on what to do after a drill — the hot wash meeting.

“It really makes it clear for people who don’t do this on a day-to-day basis,” Nunley said.

And that certainly means houses of worship and faith-based organizations, which, until recently, have been focused on inclusion and acceptance and not protecting against bad actors. “That’s not been their focus, they’ve never had to worry about that,” Merick said. “If you’re a mall administrator or an owner, you know that you have multiple doors into that mall that are open for anybody to walk through with any kind of equipment.”

Merick called the toolkit the “complete package” that facilitates setting up discussions and bringing the key people to the table.

And it’s a sensitive topic for places of worship. Armed security is welcomed at malls but not necessarily so at houses of worship. And it’s critical in times of need, such as a disaster, that parishioners get back to these places of worship to retain some sense of normalcy.

“It’s like any event or disaster; to get some normalcy back in times of trouble or despair, a lot of people turn to their houses of worship,” Merick said. “That’s a fine line for these institutions going through that grieving process and how do they get people to come back and get that normalcy in their lives?”

The value of the toolkits may be their simplicity of use, the ability to adapt them to individual needs and that they get those who need to be involved to the table to begin important discussions.

“I think it’s the value of just having the conversations,” said Jay Carey, EMA external affairs chief. “If there’s a constant theme with the toolkits it is trying to get the right people to the table so they can have those really valuable conversations.

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