Texas Minister’s Death Prompts New Safety Concerns

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Texas Minister’s Death Prompts New Safety Concerns

Nov 17, 2005 8:00 AM

They say bad news travels fast, and certainly the reports of the electrocution of Pastor Kyle Lake of University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, have spread rapidly through the worship media community. Along the way, they have prompted both some irrational overreactions and a measured re-assessment of how safety is—or isn’t—being promoted in America’s houses of worship.

Rev. Lake had just stepped into his church’s baptismal font, into water roughly waist-deep, when he reached out to adjust a microphone that was producing an unwelcome hum. The resulting electric shock stopped the pastor’s heart, which paramedics and doctors at a nearby hospital were not able to restart.

In the ensuing days, church media specialists all over the country have reacted with concern and confusion. At Churchmedia.net, a discussion forum filled up with anxious queries about what kinds of behavior would, and would not, create similar risks—as well as anecdotes about pastors no longer willing to use any sort of microphone during baptisms, suggestions for rigging safe mic systems, and war stories about the dumbest, riskiest behavior participants had seen.

“Don’t get me started,” is the reaction of Chuck Wilson, executive director of the NSCA, on the subject of safety practices in venues like churches, which are often dominated by part-time, under-trained volunteers.

Wilson says audio is a prime area for dangerous shortcuts. Some users, he notes, have even cut the grounding third prong off plugs as a means of avoiding buzz. “Lifting that safety ground is an absolute no-no, no matter how the system buzzes,” he says.

“Speakers made of particleboard, without rigging points, are another no-no,” Wilson says. Even though these speakers can be hung effectively using screw eyes and wire, he says, eventually the particleboard is apt to give way, sending the speaker enclosure plummeting.

“Don’t let lay people hang anything overhead,” Wilson advises. "[The workers] are typically not trained in the use of ladders, lifts, and the like." Not only are the suspended components a potential danger to people below, but inexperienced workers may also endanger themselves in the process of hanging the components.

Wilson says high-end, professionally installed systems rarely cause problems. “It’s the do-it-yourselfers,” he comments. Still, he urges churches with older systems to remember that best practices of 15 or 20 years ago are not necessarily applicable today. No matter how professionally installed, these older systems need a fresh look now and then.

Adventist Risk Management, an arm of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, urges all pastors to appoint a church safety officer. He or she should be a member of the church council and have both the technical knowledge and the authority to prevent and stop risky behavior. ARM’s website offers a PDF on safety practices for churches, which includes this advice: “Microphones are to be placed away from the edge of the water and mounted on floor stands.”

Wilson, though, urges church personnel to be aware of the risks that can be posed by even small items. While he sees very few amateur installations of big, heavy, high-brightness projectors, plenty of churches hang their own microprojectors. However, even a 3lb. device, falling from a height of 20ft., can hit a worshipper below like a brick, Wilson says.

Finally, Wilson sees a mandate for equipment vendors to match what they’re selling to the technical capabilities of the channel they’re selling it through—in other words, they should avoid selling complex, high-end equipment through channels likely to attract a large number of unskilled buyers.

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