Mike Whitney, a former police officer, helps the people of St. Alice Parish in Springfield prepare for the worst. (Courtesy Mike Whitney)
Mike Whitney, a former police officer, helps the people of St. Alice Parish in Springfield prepare for the worst. (Courtesy Mike Whitney)

SPRINGFIELD — Everyone remembers fire drills at school. Many businesses do their best by employees by having emergency evacuations.

But at Mass?

Members of St. Alice Parish showed how it’s done.

“Everyone was out in one minute and 42 seconds at the 9:30 a.m. Mass; that’s 300 to 350 people with a number of young families,” says Mike Whitney, one of the parishioners behind the drill.

Other Masses did nearly as well. At the vigil Mass, with about 150 congregants, everyone was out the door in 1 minute and 49 seconds; at the 12:15 p.m. Mass, with between 400 and 450 congregants, everyone exited in 2 minutes and 12 seconds.

“I was thinking that for this first time that four minutes would be good, and we’d shave time off that in future drills,” says Whitney. “We were ecstatic.”

Parishioners impressed Merrill Harrison, Springfield’s deputy fire marshal, as well. “Evacuation drills and early detection of an emergency are key to everyone’s safety,” he says. “The whole point is familiarizing people about getting out. We fall back on muscle memory when we get scared or things go wrong.”

The impetus for the emergency evacuation drill came from Father Mark Bentz, who arrived as the new pastor of St. Alice in Springfield in 2016. He’d inherited a strong pastoral council and Whitney, a retired police officer who has worked for decades as a private investigator, as council president.

Like every pastor, Father Bentz cared about keeping his parishioners safe, but he thought far more about their spiritual safety than their physical safety. Church security hadn’t been on his radar until he heard some disturbing news at a vicariate meeting that autumn. Another pastor had told about a physical assault at that parish.

Father Bentz consulted with Whitney. “He and Jim Horton have taken the bull by the horns and developed a safety plan,” says Father Bentz. “It’s great.”

Whitney and Horton (also a retired police officer) say the credit goes to the parish security committee, which came together quickly and boasts an unusually strong pool of talent, including a nurse, a security consultant, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration federal employee, a Department of Defense career public servant, a young Spanish-speaking police cadet and national guardsman.

They purposefully kept the committee small.

Their work was soon shown to be necessary. While parishioners at St. Alice, founded in 1921, didn’t remember troubling incidents in past decades, in the last year and a half there have been three restraining orders against potentially dangerous trespassers.

“We were prepared for it,” says Whitney.

The evacuation drill — which will be repeated — was just one part of the safety committee’s work. They spearheaded several efforts to ward off trouble, including improving the parking lot’s lighting, installation of security cameras throughout the church campus, purchasing a new computer system that provided better data protection, remodeling the cry room to provide emergency exits, training for greeters and emergency assistants, and a dozen other works.

In the same way that there is a lead greeter for each Mass, there is also a lead emergency assistant, who stands at the back of the sanctuary during Mass and keeps an eye out for where help might be needed. The safety committee’s protocols suggest that all greeters and emergency assistants are ‘the face of St. Alice’ and also its eyes and ears, offering “a welcoming greeting to everyone while remaining alert for possible issues.”

Horton says the worst case so far was a man who came to the Spanish Mass but was clearly not there to pray. He was hanging around the restrooms with a camera around his neck, watching the kids. The lead greeter asked him to leave — and the security cameras meant the parish had a good photo of the individual. That photo was distributed to all the greeters.

Two weeks later, the same fellow turned up at the 9:30 a.m. English Mass, also hanging about the restroom. The greeters recognized him and called the police.

“As a result of that guy, Father Mark asked parents to accompany their children to the restroom,” says Horton. “That was one of the good outcomes.”

The committee released the nine-page “Medical, Safety and Security Policies and Procedures” pamphlet that they’ve shared with other churches, both Catholic and Protestant.

“This is a great template to draw from,” says Harrison, the deputy fire marshal. “You’d just customize it for different locations — and don’t be afraid to change it.”

Both Whitney and Horton caution people about keeping a balance when thinking about crime.

Whitney says he was at a presentation offered by the Portland Police Bureau last year when the presenter asked listeners to raise their hands if they thought it was more dangerous currently than when they were growing up. Most hands went up. Then he noted that in fact violent crime per capita is about half of what it was in the 1970s. Furthermore, the odds of being involved in an active shooter situation is less than one in a million.

“I called my friend Siri to ask what the odds were for getting hit by lightning,” Whitney quips. “It’s about 1 in 800,000. So it’s something to think about, yes, but not to be scared over.”

Father Bentz puts it a bit differently. “We don’t want to think about this but as pastor I have to look out for my flock and keep them safe,” he says. “I believe the Lord will take care of us, but at the same time we need to be proactive so we’re not caught unaware.”