Parishes begin training to prepare for emergencies
Archdiocesan task force working with Cook County and Chicago emergency management offices

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, April 3, 2016

 Turn on the news. Look at the video of churches damaged by tornadoes, or under 10 feet of water, or coping after a shooting.

Those things happen, said Father Michael Zaniolo, director of the archdiocesan Security Awareness and Emergency Management Task Force, and it’s best to be prepared.

“It’s always better to be prepared than not prepared,” said Zaniolo, the O’Hare and Midway airport chaplain. “The weather is becoming more violent and unpredictable and so are people.”

The task force is working with the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management as well as the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communication to offer a series of workshops to help parishes create their own emergency operations plans.

The first set of three workshops starts April 11; workshops will continue at sites throughout the archdiocese through next fall. Each set includes three, threehour meetings spaced two weeks apart to allow parishes time to develop their plans with the templates provided, customized to each parish with its location and physical plant. After the workshops, each parish would train its own staff and volunteers on implementing the plan.

Parish plans outline the process for how to prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies or other incidents. Each plan will include relevant threats and hazards, parish operations and congregation demographics; incident operations such as evacuation, family reunification, incident management and coordination with outside agencies; incident communications and public information; and the roles and responsibilities of people involved.

Having plans in place means that when something happens, everyone knows what to do, Zaniolo said, whether the situation is waterlogged religious education classrooms in a parish center basement, a fire breaking out during Mass or a tornado that touched down in the vicinity.

“Maybe the emergency services personnel call and they want to know if they can use the gym, or they need a cafeteria where they can feed people, and they call, and you don’t really know the answer,” Zaniolo said. “If a parish has an emergency plan, they would be prepared.”

Zaniolo likened planning and preparing for emergencies to the way pilots train for all kinds of unexpected incidents in the air.

“I’ve seen them train for everything,” he said. “The more they train, the more it becomes just a routine thing when something does happen. You can tell yourself, ‘I don’t have to panic, I don’t have to think fast. I know what to do.’”

The plans can’t cover every contingency and detail, Zaniolo said, but they can get parishes moving quickly. They can also make parish leaders more aware of the need to think ahead.

“Maybe there’s a forecast of bad weather,” he said. “And the pastor can look ahead and say, ‘Maybe we should be prepared to activate our plan.’”

More than a year ago, Cook County’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management reached out to the roughly 5,000 houses of worship in the county to establish relationships and best practices in responding to emergencies resulting from natural disasters and from criminal or terrorist acts. Because the archdiocese has so many parishes, the county department started working directly with them. Parishes in Lake County also are encouraged to participate, Zaniolo said.

The process was piloted by Divine Infant Parish in Westchester, selected precisely because the parish has been flooded twice in the past several years.

After creating their plans, parishes might find new ways to implement them. For example, while schools are required to perform fire drills, churches aren’t, Zaniolo said.

A pastor might decide to ask people to stay a few minutes after Mass every now and then for a fire drill, to go over ways to make sure elderly or disabled parishioners are helped to evacuate and to identify who is responsible for making sure the building is empty.

“Most of us don’t know what to do if the fire alarm goes off in church,” he said. “It makes sense.”


  • violence
  • emergenices
  • natural disasters
  • michael zaniolo
  • archdiocesan security awareness and emergency management task force
  • divine infant

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