Transforming Your Church into an Emergency Shelter

Jan. 27, 2016 – Weather has a significant impact on our daily lives. Natural disasters, however, have the ability to change our lives in an instant. In many cases, numerous people are left without resources or even homeless. In the aftermath of a natural disaster such as a hurricane, tornado or flood, churches may consider serving as an emergency shelter. While offering such a service is a tremendous act of compassion, please be aware that additional risks are associated with providing an emergency shelter including the following:

  • Increased potential for fire due to strain on the buildings electrical system, cooking of food as well as the potential of smoking by occupants;
  • Additional strain on the plumbing facilities;
  • The number of exits in the building may not be adequate, and/or exits may lack proper signage and emergency lighting;
  • Greater chances of property damage or personal injury due to accidents, unruly guests, or human error;
  • Greater chances of theft due to increased public access to the building; and
  • The possibility of communicable disease and/or food-borne illness.

If the decision is made to open a shelter in a church facility, the initial planning of the project is essential to ensure safe operation. For instance, do you have enough responsible people to handle the many tasks of operating a shelter? Assuming you have sufficient staff, the premises should be prepared, safety procedures should be implemented, and rules must be put in place. Please consider the following in your plan:

Establish a Plan

  • Check with local officials about requirements for establishing an emergency shelter. Some localities require shower facilities or other minimum requirements.
  • Consult with your local fire department concerning maximum occupancy and fire safety precautions.
  • Analyze the layout of your facility, determining a plan in the event of an emergency and adequately communicate the plan to staff and volunteers.
  • Clearly mark all exits and have unobstructed access in and out.
  • Limit guest-accessible areas and secure remaining areas around the building.
  • Plan ahead for evacuation of the shelter in the event of a fire or other emergency. Make sure all of your staff and volunteers understand this emergency plan.

Stock Up on Supplies

As an emergency shelter, your church will need to supply individuals and families with multiple resources. First, see that your First Aid kit has all the necessary contents and is fully stocked. Second, ensure you have the proper disaster supplies, including food, water, blankets, personal care products, etc.

Assure that meals in the church kitchen are prepared only under the supervision of persons trained in food safety. Follow adequate sanitation concerning food storage, preparation, and serving.

Establish Rules

  • Establish, enforce, and prominently display rules.
  • Do not permit use or possession of illegal drugs, alcohol or weapons. Unlawful or unruly activities by guests should not be allowed and the hiring of outside security may be an option to ensure safety and security of your guests, volunteers and your building.
  • Shelter hours should be established so that individuals cannot enter after a specific time.
  • Require that all guests complete a Guest Registration Form and be given a copy of the shelter rules. Log guests in daily; and require that they sign in and out.
  • Do not permit animals or pets in the shelter, unless they are bona fide service animals for the disabled.

Train Staff and Volunteers

  • Establish a supervision schedule for volunteers. Designate an employee or volunteer from the church as the supervisor of all volunteers. A supervisor should be on-site at all times and a minimum of two volunteers should be awake at all times to monitor the activity.
  • Monitor each entrance and exit to the shelter at all times, and limit and secure access to other areas of the building.
  • Inspect and monitor walking surfaces to prevent slips, trips and falls.
  • Plan a response to persons contracting a communicable disease or coming to the shelter seriously ill.
  • Take special needs of your guests (elderly, wheelchairs, walkers) into consideration and plan accordingly.

Offering assistance in a time of need is part of many ministries. By giving serious consideration to the potential risks of a shelter and then putting the proper safeguards and policies in place, your church can help ensure a safe environment for everyone involved. For additional information and a list of rules for an emergency shelter, view the “Emergency Shelters” fact sheet on SafeChurch.com.

© 2020 The GuideOne Center for Risk Management, LLC. All rights reserved.This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific legal or risk management advice, nor are any suggested checklists or action plans intended to include or address all possible risk management exposures or solutions. You are encouraged to retain your own expert consultants and legal advisors in order to develop a risk management plan specific to your own activities.