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Open churches toolkit: Security and safety: opening with confidence

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If you’ve been reluctant to open your church building until now, it’s possible that this is because of concerns about security. If so, then don’t worry – you’re not alone! Fear of theft, anti-social behaviour and personal safety are the three reasons commonly given for not opening.

But without wanting to discount real and well-founded concerns, often the perception of the problem is more of a barrier than the problem itself. Many of the reasons that get cited for not opening church buildings are urban myths, anecdotal or apply only in very specific circumstances. For instance, you might have heard it said that insurance policies require churches to be kept locked; in fact statistically a church that is open is less vulnerable to theft.

Ecclesiastical Insurance Group (EIG) advises in its guidance notes on church security (available with more advice on church security generally as a download here) that:

“if at all possible your church should be left open during the day for those who wish to pray, or who wish to find a place for quiet contemplation and for community activities. The presence of legitimate visitors will also help to deter those with a criminal intent. It is not the policy of EIG to ask for churches to be kept locked during the day.

There are plenty of measures you can put in place to minimise the risks and strike the right balance between accessibility and security. One of the best ways you can do this is to change perceptions: as the local community gets more engaged, everyone who comes into your church building will start to think of it as theirs and so take their share of responsibility for it. As long as you implement the practical advice provided by EIG you will be covered for cost of any thefts or damage and your premium should not go up. It can sometimes be less expensive to reinstate replaceable items than to repair damage caused by break-ins.

Key precautions to take

  • Lock away valuable items (e.g. things made of silver, brass or pewter) in a secure area and put less valuable substitutes in their place. Make sure you have a good record of them, including photographs, using the Object ID Standard. Mark valuables with security codes or SmartWater. You can also download advice (pdf) on protecting treasures from the Church Buildings Council.
  • Put electronic equipment and anything used by your worship group in a lockable cabinet or create an out-of-bounds storage area to deter casual theft and protect against damage.
  • Small, easily portable items of furniture can be especially vulnerable: chaining them to the floor or wall deters would-be thieves.
  • Install an alarm system, CCTV or security lights triggered by a motion sensor system. Any decision should be based on your own particular set of circumstances and EIG will be able to give you detailed advice on how best to take account of these.
  • While maximising the use of your church building outside service times can be a great way of providing passive surveillance, it’s crucial to establish a clear protocol for key management. Who has ultimate responsibility? Does everyone know who is using the building and when? The protocol should include an up-to-date list of key-holders and back up procedures for when any of them is away. The number of duplicate sets should be kept to a minimum and all keys should be stored in a secure place away from the church.
  • Minimise the risk of accidental fire and arson by removing all unwanted combustible items. Keep any stands for votive candles well away from anything flammable. Instead of leaving matches, light one or two candles from which visitors can light their own.
  • Use a table-top donation box rather than a wall safe. If you are unlucky enough to get robbed, no physical harm will be done to the building, whereas a thief who tries to lever open a wall safe will damage the surrounding fabric. You can also reduce the risk of theft by emptying it regularly and displaying a clearly visible notice to this effect.
  • Tell your neighbours (residents, local shops and so on) that you are opening the church and inform them of the opening times. The local community can be your eyes and ears and raise the alarm if they see any suspicious activity.
  • For the same reason, tell the police, particularly your Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). This will be used to inform decisions over priorities for the community in local policing. Find your nearest local neighbourhood policing team by entering your postcode here. Some churches make their toilet available to PCSOs, which provides an added measure of security. English Heritage offers useful guidance more specifically aimed at guarding historic building against crime.
  • Pass on any new advice on security from the Diocese and the Police to anyone regularly using or looking after the building. Old threats change and new threats appear all the time, so it’s important to be well informed.

Keeping people safe

Make sure that any people left on their own in your church while it’s open don’t expose themselves to unnecessary risk by familiarising them with these simple guidelines.

Whenever possible, arrange schedules so that people working in or on the church are there at the same time and are aware of each other’s presence.

If people are going to be in the church on their own, make sure that they tell somebody and say when they expect to be back.

  • Wherever you are in the church, make sure you know where the nearest exit is. Don’t fence yourself in – avoid lingering in an area with a way out that can easily be blocked. Make sure you can get away quickly by car or public transport if the need arises.
  • Make sure anyone on duty in the church has a mobile (and make sure they check that it’s charged up) or easy access to a phone, as well as the number for the local police and church members to contact in the event of an emergency.
  • Display the postcode of the church in a prominent place and ensure that everyone knows this information. If there is an incident it will help the emergency services to find the church quickly.
  • Trust your instinct: as soon as you feel a situation might be getting risky, walk away. Avoid confrontation and don’t be a ‘have a go hero’ – call the police if you have any doubts about whether you can deal with it.
  • Never disturb the scene of a crime and always report it to the police immediately, no matter how insignificant you think it might be. Get the PCC to devise and agree a formal procedure for recording incidents and supporting victims.

EIG offers an advice sheet on personal safety available as a downloadable pdf document. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust has more helpful guidance on personal safety, as does the Metropolitan Police.

Stopping health and safety from going mad

Your parish should already have a health and safety policy. If you’ve not opened your church regularly before then it’s good to review this to take account of visitors who won’t be familiar with the building. Carry out a risk assessment and find out what needs to be done to eliminate any risks you discover. Passive solutions, such as targeted lighting and ensuring any cables are secured, are preferable. Look out for uneven floor levels or steps and poorly lit areas. This is especially important if you’re opening up areas that haven’t been accessible to the public before, like the church tower – something well worth offering to visitors as this can offer spectacular views.

If you’re concerned about letting visitors wander around unaccompanied then you may be able to control risks by showing them these areas on a guided tour. You can find more information about risk assessment and minimisation on the relevant page of EIG’s website.

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