If Shawn Brokos could offer just one piece of advice for those concerned about safety at Pittsburgh Jewish institutions, it would be to train. And when you finish training, train again. After that, train again.
Brokos, the director of community security for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said she views security “holistically,” calling her approach “active threat training.”
While there are no known active threats in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, she said, organizations should be ready for all potential security situations.
“We need to be prepared in the event that a threat gets through our security measures,” Brokos said. “That training is absolutely essential. It’s a mindset — walking through your building and conducting these drills, practice evacuating, practice barricading. It becomes something you are comfortable with, and it becomes a state of mind.”
Active threat training is more inclusive than active shooter training, Brokos explained, and is more beneficial in events like the Jan. 15 hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
“It’s not just guns,” Brokos said. “It’s knives and vehicles. Active threat training, if done right, is fully comprehensive of many things.”
Training that includes employees, congregants, customers and anyone else that might spend time in a building is vital, Brokos said, preparation begins well before the first drill has been begun: Evaluating the current threat tempo is vital, as is situational awareness and the adage, “see something, say something.”
Brokos urges organizations to think about questions like what it means to be an usher, who is admitted into a building and what to do when you see something suspicious.
“We have to be cognizant of our surroundings, and we have to report suspicious activity,” she said.
Training should begin with fundamentals like making sure doors are locked and identifying places where people can shelter in place if necessary. It should expand to include the same training used by law enforcement agencies across the country: Run, hide, fight.
This model, she said, has proved to save lives.
“We need to do actual drills to have people through the buildings,” Brokos said. “If you had to evacuate at a moment’s notice, what does that look like? What are your primary and secondary exits? We need to talk about what it means to be barricaded. Do you have proper locks on your doors that you can barricade and pull shades? The final piece, the last resort, is to be prepared if you have to fight in an active threat situation. Find whatever you can to use as a weapon or distraction.”
There should be one person responsible for security at any given organization, Brokos said, and that person doesn’t have to be an executive director or CEO, but should be responsible for facilitating training and updating security plans and protocols.
“At the end of the day,” Brokos said, “we’re responsible for our own security.”
Brokos discussed these points during a webinar last week with community leaders following the incident in Colleyville. She highlighted how important security cameras were in that situation, as was providing law enforcement with building access and floor plans in advance.
The need to include de-escalation as part of active threat training was also discussed during the webinar, she said.
Federation has worked with law enforcement, Brokos said, creating updated training that will be rolled out in the next few months.
“I’m building the course description and what it will look like,” she said. “What we saw really enforces the need for it.”
The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh isn’t rethinking its security measures in light of Colleyville, the JCC’s chief program officer, Jason Kunzman, said. “Rather, we are reenergized in our security efforts.”
Kunzman attended the recent security webinar and said that Brokos presented a checklist for Jewish organizations that included creating up-to-date emergency plans and training, regularly testing all technology and alarm systems, providing updated floor plans to Federation and allowing regular visits from law enforcement.
“I was very pleased that the JCC had much, if not all, of those best practices already in place,” Kunzman said.
He acknowledged that the JCC is responsible for keeping a large swath of people safe, including Early Childhood Development Center students and teachers, Silver Sneaker members, campers and non-Jewish members there to work out.
“We take the middle part of our name — ‘Community’ — very seriously,” he said. “It’s what we’ve been about for 126 years. There’s a fine line between being a welcoming and accessible community center while at the same time ensuring everyone’s safety.”
The JCC’s ECDC, like other Jewish child care facilities, is part of Federation’s Blue Point System, which alerts police and other security organizations about emergency situations, Kunzman said.
He said the JCC had already made security enhancements at all four of its locations — in Monroeville, the South Hills, Squirrel Hill and West Virginia — but that what matters most are eyes and ears on the ground.
“At the end of the day, even with all the fancy gadgets and technology we have in place, it comes down to the actions of individuals,” he said. “At the end of the day, we remain committed to training our staff to be as best prepared as they possibly can be.”
Likewise, Community Day School trains and prepares for many different emergency scenarios throughout the year, according to CDS spokesperson Jennifer Bails.
“We hope to never have to use what we learn in practice,” she said.
Bails said there are lessons to be learned from the events in Colleyville, and she expects additional lessons will come to light as more details are revealed.
Security, Bails said, is something in which everyone participates.
“Everyone is part of security — our security staff, our teachers, our students and our families. You know, ‘If you see something, say something.’ That’s very real. We rely on everyone’s eyes and ears. Every person is a critical part of that team, along with our administrative staff, partners at Federation and local law enforcement.”
Louis Felder, president of Congregation Poale Zedeck, agreed with Kunzman that human interaction is vital for security. He said his congregation has people monitoring who is entering and exiting the building.
“We want to let people in to daven,” he said, “but if we don’t know the person, it’s a little concerning. It’s a balance.”
He said that PZ has talked with Federation about setting up additional training and remains vigilant.
“We send out reminders to make sure the door is closed behind you and not letting in strangers,” he said.
An organization can never do enough training, said Beth El Congregation of the South Hills’ Executive Director Chris Benton.
“Security is not a destination,” she said. “It’s an ongoing process.”
In addition to the congregation’s security training, Beth El also has a good relationship with Scott Township’s law enforcement.
Monroeville’s Temple David has already put into place part of what Brokos considers best practices and has named Mark White as its security committee chairperson.
White said that security has been a high priority for all Pittsburgh Jewish institutions since the massacre at the Tree of Life building, but that the pandemic and the move to Zoom events may have caused many organizations to become a bit lax in their security procedures. He said that has been addressed since the return to in-person services and the incident at Colleyville.
“It’s back on the top of the list,” White said. “There’s an increased awareness.”
Temple David, like most other Jewish institutions, struggles with how to remain open and welcoming while maintaining a high level of security, he added.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a river that I’m not sure how we cross.”
Brokos said the Pittsburgh community is open but needs to maintain a vetting process.
“We need to know who’s coming and going through our door,” she said. “We do that by having a conversation with people before they even come through our door. We have to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, we are in the middle of a service; this is not an appropriate time for you to come in. Here’s our website and phone number. We can talk later.’ We need to strike that balance, and it is contrary to our nature in the Jewish community.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.