Creating An Evacuation Plan

You rarely expect an emergency to affect your congregation, but realistically, a situation could happen at any time. Whether it’s a natural disaster or a made-man situation, you should be prepared with a plan of action, outlined and practiced ahead of time.

An evacuation plan is a major part of being prepared for a variety of emergency situations that your ministry may encounter.

You Need an Evacuation Plan

Reasons for evacuation vary greatly. Situations could include fire, severe weather, violence, hazardous materials, gas leaks, or something else. Since it’s impossible to anticipate which emergency your ministry may face, your evacuation plan should be:

  • Simple enough to carry out quickly.
  • Specific enough to be helpful.
  • Versatile enough to apply to a variety of situations.

Putting Your Plan Together

Evaluate equipment and systems. Start by evaluating your equipment and systems to determine if you have sufficient warning and communications tools. Include:

  • Detectors: Smoke alarms, carbon monoxide alarms, weather radios, etc.
  • Warning systems: Signals throughout the facility that include both audible alarms and flashing lights
  • Communications tools: Overhead public address system, walkie-talkies in classrooms and key areas, or another means of internal communication
  • Flashlights: Are they available in classrooms and other key areas?
  • Evacuation maps: Are the posted visibly throughout the facility? Are they specific to each area?

Roles to consider. Next, identify essential roles and how these roles can be filled—regardless of who is in the facility at the time of the event.

  • Who will monitor the situation: weather radio, news, etc.?
  • Who has the authority to order an evacuation?
  • Who will activate the warning systems/signals (alarms, overhead announcements, walkie-talkie messages, etc.)?
  • Who is in charge of leading groups from different areas of the building (and what happens when these individuals are not available or not present)?
  • How will you know who is in your building at any given time, and how will you account for everyone (in order to ensure everyone has moved to safety)? Who will do head counts before and after evacuation?
  • Are there critical systems that need to be shut down? If so, who can/will be responsible?
  • Who will contact and talk to authorities (police, fire, medical, etc.) and respond to the media?
  • Who has the authority to call the “all clear”?

Maps, exits, and meeting spaces. Along with evaluating your equipment, systems, and roles, you will need to create evacuation maps and identify emergency exits, routes, and destinations.

  • Create maps showing the building and grounds and post them throughout the facility. Ensure that emergency exits and routes (at least two per area) are clearly marked. Designate areas for people to assemble—both inside and outside—depending on the reason for evacuation. Outdoor gathering areas should be at least 150 feet away from the building.
  • Remember that not all evacuations will mean sending people outside. In certain instances, it’s safer to remain inside. For instance, you will want people to assemble in an internal room away from windows if a tornado is approaching.
  • Designating specific destination locations will enable you to account for people and help you know who might be missing.

A Word About Emergency Codes

During an emergency, it’s important to let people know what is happening. Leadership will need to know the situation so they can properly direct others. In general, people need to know where to go and what to do.

Designating and using simple key words like “Code White” for a winter storm or “Code Medical” for an injury or illness might be helpful. These codes and locations can be communicated by overhead public address system, walkie-talkies, or both.

When you identify codes for specific kinds of incidents—fire, severe weather, medical, hazardous material, violence, etc.—you should assign a desired evacuation method. By calling a code, it can enable your leadership as well as others to know how to evacuate.

Other Things to Consider

Keep in mind there may be people with special needs in your facility at the time of an emergency. Special needs could include anything from hearing or visual impairment to physical limitations, and even to those who do not speak English. How will your warning systems (sound, light, overhead communication) and evacuation maps and routes affect them?

How will your plan be affected when members of the leadership team are not in the building? Will those who are in the building know what to do and where to go?

Review and Practice

It’s a good idea to have a trained emergency services professional review your plan to help identify weaknesses, suggest improvements, and ensure compliance with recommended practices.

Train and practice. Typically, your local fire, police, and emergency medical services organizations will help review your plan at no charge. Once you have developed a plan, you should review it, practice it with your staff and volunteers, and update it at least annually.

  • Introduce all new staff members and volunteers to the plan during orientation. Be sure everyone knows how to use the various detection systems, alarms, and communications tools.
  • Do tabletop and walk-through exercises with staff at least once a year.
  • Couple evacuation training and retraining with other efforts, such as a half-day child care training session.
  • Involve your congregation. Though the thought of having an evacuation drill on Sunday morning might seem daunting, it would actually be a good test of your systems, equipment, plan, and staff. Consider holding a drill either after service or between services. Consider holding both an internal and an external evacuation. You might alternate these drills every six months. Use the exercise as a way to encourage your members to develop their own evacuation plans for their homes.
  • Update your plan at least once a year and after each exercise or drill, based on what you learn. Communicate updates to staff and volunteers.

Beyond the Evacuation Plan

The evacuation plan is just one element in your emergency “tool kit.” As essential as it is, your emergency preparations can’t stop here. Explore Brotherhood Mutual’s online Safety Library to find more information on preparing your church for emergencies and disasters.