Parish Emergency Preparedness Planning

By Elizabeth Lien

There is a saying in Oregon, “If you don’t want it to rain carry an umbrella.” Emergency Preparedness planning is similar to making a huge umbrella composed of many panes that in their entirety form a protective device for those beneath it. Readiness planning involves individuals, neighborhoods, and communities both at local, state and national levels. In most areas of the country, faith communities form the heart of emergency response efforts, being centers where people naturally turn in a crisis.

Church of the Annunciation and the H1N1 “Pandemic”

Prompted by public health advisories regarding the possible H1N1influenza epidemic of 2009, an Emergency Preparedness Team (EPT) was established at the Church of the Annunciation in Milwaukie, Oregon. Composed of parishioners with expertise in health care, transportation, and social services plus members of our clergy and parish council, the team met to formulate a parish response plan that would allow us to meet the needs of members who became ill as well as continue the work of the parish.

The plan that emerged created a framework for later emergency preparedness planning. Efforts initially addressed concerns regarding the health issues associated with the flu. We focused on a plan to assist those who live by themselves. We also recognized the need to educate parishioners about the spread of infection among groups of people. All of the information that was needed to formulate our plan was available on governmental websites, notably the Center for Disease Control and our state public health department.

Under the guidance of the Very Rev. Fr. Matthew Tate, our clergy decided on a plan to provide spiritual care to ill individuals in their homes. Team members made “hydration kits” to distribute to ill parishioners. The parish gathered for a power point presentation during which they were presented with information on the virus, infection prevention, and our parish response plan. A group of children presented the essential message of infection prevention through song, “You Gotta Wash Your Hands!” (sung to the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). Thankfully, it didn’t rain; no one became seriously ill during the flu season and our hydration kits are collecting dust in the parish office.

Emergency Preparedness Planning

Subsequent planning has involved gathering information regarding possible roles our parish might play in the event of an emergency or catastrophic event in our community. Both the American Red Cross (ARC) and Clackamas County’s Department of Emergency Management (DEM) have offered assistance in the planning process.

An ARC coordinator evaluated our facility and discussed the way we might support and assist them in their efforts when disasters occur. They are eager to establish a shelter agreement with us so that in the event of a local emergency, they can use our facility to meet the needs of the community. Their well developed plan includes liability coverage and facility clean-up. Also, they work collaboratively with other agencies, including first responders and social service groups, so there is an established network that supports the community through their organization.

The DEM focuses more on neighborhood readiness and has a program called, “Map Your Neighborhood”, in which people are encouraged to map their environment and complete steps in a planning process that focuses on neighbors helping neighbors in the event of a community crisis. Our church would function as a “neighbor” in the event of an emergency event affecting the community at large. A common theme among both organizations is that of letting the professionals manage the crisis. Both organizations have websites with extensive information on individual and community preparedness.

Other Programs Throughout the US

Other programs available throughout the United States include Citizen Corps which provides homeland security and emergency preparedness training to individuals and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) which provides service and communication to communities affected by disasters. Some communities offer training for individuals who want to become members of Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT). Most local and state websites will offer links to these organizations on their main websites.

International Orthodox Christian Charities is starting a program called OAT (Orthodox Action Team Project 2010), with the intent of creating an emergency response network of Orthodox Christians who can help in regional disasters. This organization shows promise in providing a well trained team for assisting parishes in the event of a disaster. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is an example of a faith community that has embraced emergency preparedness. They often have members willing to provide training to other groups seeking to replicate their program.

Part of our EPT discussion has involved having the ability to spontaneously meet the needs of others. Recognizing that this is dependent upon having a well organized response, it is also clear that too much bureaucracy can impede efforts to help people. Parishioners familiar with International Orthodox Christian Charities’ efforts during Hurricane Katrina were impressed by their ability to meet the needs of people on the spot because they were unencumbered by restrictions that were governing the work of other organizations. Clearly, an ability to respond in the Spirit is a high priority.

What does a prepared parish look like?

No matter the depth of organization, every parish needs to have an emergency response plan and a person or committee charged with carrying it out. Whether it be a fire or health crisis, strategies to meet the needs of parishioners and keep people calm and safe are required. Ushers are helpful in addressing the needs for safely responding to a medical emergency or evacuating the church in the event of a fire. People with disabilities may need assistance in evacuating the church. Having a parish nurse or health team who can assist in health crises is also of great benefit. If your church does not have a defibrillator, you might want to purchase one. Our local fire department had a program that provided partial reimbursement to us when we purchased ours.

Depending upon the amount of space a church has, an area for collecting donations of food, clothing and bedding would be useful. These items may be distributed to people forced to leave their homes because of a disaster. Special consideration is required to assist the elderly, people with chronic health conditions and disabilities, children, and pets. No matter the degree of planning, all volunteers need to be trained to assist in an emergency. Communication is a critical feature for maintaining calm and order during a crisis. Our parish has a well established email system for sending out important announcements to the parish.

Basic Parish Readiness includes:

  • First Aid and Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation trained membership (The ARC offers classes in First Aid, CPR. Their pamphlet, Be Aware & Prepare is available throughout the United States and can guide anyone in preparing for emergencies.)
  • Assisting the elderly, persons with chronic illness or disabilities and those who live alone to have an emergency kit (including medications)
  • Usher program (assist with evacuation, helping the disabled)
  • Hold periodic fire drills to practice safely evacuating the elderly, children and those with disabilities
  • Communication tree/system

Parish Community Readiness might include:

  • Form an EPT and become trained (The ARC offers classes in disaster preparedness. They train volunteers to run shelters and assist other communities when disasters occur. Their pamphlet, Be Aware & Prepare is available throughout the United States and can guide anyone in preparing for emergencies.)
  • Develop a disaster plan that includes protecting the church as well as using the church as a shelter if necessary by its members/neighbors.
  • Form a health team composed of members with medical training. If you don’t have a parish nurse, you might want to consider sending a parishioner who is a registered nurse to a training program.
  • Develop a plan for addressing health and environmental disasters.
  • Become a recognized partner in disaster aid with local organizations like the ARC.

Advanced Preparedness might include:

  • Establishing a community donation site for food, clothing and bedding.
  • Becoming an official ARC shelter site (requires a formal agreement with the ARC and some member training.)
  • Hosting regular community training events that include first aid, CPR, and individual/family disaster preparedness. This is a great Eagle Scout project.
  • Supporting parishioners who train to respond to disasters anywhere in the country/world. This may include holding fundraisers for their support or designating parish funds for their training.
  • Creation of a communication system that includes HAM radio operators.
  • Share disaster readiness information with other Orthodox churches/faith communities in the same locale (strengthen relationships and build awareness of resources to Orthodox church members unable to reach their home parishes during a disaster.)

Regardless of the amount of energy a parish has to put towards emergency preparedness, it is essential that parish councils have an idea of how their church might respond should a disaster occur. Clergy will be called upon to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of a community in crisis. Working with local organizations that promote disaster preparedness, any church can ready itself to meet the needs of its community in the event of a catastrophic event. Times of crisis present opportunities to witness to the Gospel we hold dear and bring others into the comfort and safety of the Church.

Questions for Discussion:

Would our parish benefit from an Emergency Preparedness Team or Committee?

What disasters might our parishioners or neighbors encounter?

How might our parish be of help? What kind of leadership would we need? Would some training be required?

How might we work with other Orthodox or neighborhood parishes?

Elizabeth Lien, RN, MSN is the mother of three children. Her passion is caring for infants and their families in the maternity setting where she has been practicing for over thirty years. In addition to working as both a staff nurse and educator, she is the parish nurse for the Church of the Annunciation in Milwaukee, OR where her husband, the Very Rev. Kevin Lien is the Associate Priest.