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Home > DISACT > Hughes (2003)

A Strategy to Increase Cooperation for Disaster Preparedness:
some Australian examples for saving resources and raising awareness

Janet Hughes
Head of Conservation, National Gallery of Australia
GPO Box 1150
Canberra ACT 2600


A 1998 report by the Australian National Audit Office found many deficiencies in Disaster Preparedness at four major national cultural institutions in Canberra, Australia. While it was recognised that many deficiencies were due to lack of resources, it was nevertheless necessary to urgently address these problems. As a result, cooperation strategies were developed by representatives from all cultural and scientific institutions in the city to improve disaster preparedness.

This has included the development of a Memorandum of Understanding providing for mutual emergency assistance; sharing of information and equipment; and joint training to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Training strategies stress the importance of ensuring disaster awareness at all levels of responsibility, including senior executives.

Several different models for disaster preparedness cooperation used in Australia and elsewhere are briefly compared. The Canberra model could be modified to suit many different situations where museum professionals must achieve results with limited staffing and restricted funding.


Preventive conservation, disaster recovery, disaster prevention, disaster plan, museums, cultural collections, scientific collections, training.


The prevention of disasters and the organisation of disaster recovery operations are serious risk management responsibilities for museums throughout the world. Despite its importance it is often difficult to get the resources required for developing a disaster plan and purchasing of materials and equipment.

This paper presents strategies developed by some museum professionals in Canberra, the national capital of Australia, to meet the challenge of limited staff availability and tight budgets for disaster preparedness. In most large museums, galleries, archives, and libraries in Australia materials conservators (known in Europe as conservator-restorers) are responsible for developing a Disaster Plan for their institution. In the event of a major disaster it is also conservators who usually lead the disaster recovery process. In smaller institutions there may be only one or two staff with broad responsibilities for the collection, and in these cases a building manager or a curator may be responsible for disaster preparedness.

This paper explores factors influencing successful cooperation on disaster preparedness between institutions, analyses training requirements both within and across institutions, proposes some ideas for further development and considers how this model can be applied elsewhere.

Canberra is a small city of approximately 300,000 people but has a disproportionately large number of cultural and scientific collections. This is because of the presence of national collecting institutions and the concentration of government departments and universities.

Report of the Australian National Audit Office on ‘Safeguarding Our National Collections’

In 1998 the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) examined a large number of collection management issues at four major national cultural institutions in Canberra: the Australian War Memorial (AWM), the National Library of Australia (NLA), the National Museum of Australia (NMA) and the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). Many of the concerns related to safeguarding of collections in storage areas, particularly since most institutions typically have over 80% of their collections in storage and only small percentage on display.

One of the auditors was a former curator at the National Museum of Australia so it was perhaps inevitable that the report would conclude that Disaster Preparedness was less than optimal, although the report recognised that resource issues were a significant factor. Recommendation 9 of ANAO report [1] required each of the four institutions to develop a disaster plan and associated procedures and to implement regular reviews to ensure plans are updated. The ANAO report also required each institution to send progress reports on Disaster Planning to Parliament.

Over the last decade most national institutions have reduced staff numbers but work programs have simultaneously expanded. Indeed the four national institutions faced ‘efficiency dividends’ at the time of the report that forced reductions in staff numbers by 2% per annum. Risk management has become increasingly important and recent studies in museums have also placed a strong focus on cost-effective management of risks to collections, for example Waller [2].

At the time of the ANAO report the author was the Manager of Conservation at the National Museum of Australia and was thus required to develop a Disaster Plan at the same time as the museum entered major redevelopment requiring extensive display preparations and development of a new building. This seemed an impossible task.

The author had previously been a member of a group of conservators from different cultural institutions in Sydney providing mutual emergency assistance in emergencies and this experience suggested that a similar approach might be considered in Canberra. The mutual assistance system in Sydney worked well when part of the roof was torn off the Australian National Maritime Museum during a storm resulting in extensive water damage to storage areas. The group in Sydney loaned staff, materials and equipment that greatly speeded the recovery process and provided disaster recovery experience from which important lessons were learned. The damage and disruption from a major fire at National Library of Australia in 1985 were also well remembered in Canberra.

Encouraging cooperation between institutions in Canberra

There are, however, some differences between the situation in Canberra and Sydney in terms of organising cooperation:

  • Many institutions in Canberra are Commonwealth (federal) government agencies and have similar styles of operation whereas Sydney had a mix of Commonwealth, State (provincial) and University institutions that favoured a more informal arrangement driven by conservators.
  • The Commonwealth government tends to be more legalistic and requirements for insurance for staff attending out-of-hours incidents suggested a more formal cooperation arrangement was needed.
  • Previously the Commonwealth had generally self-insured collections, but increasing numbers of government-indemnified travelling exhibitions and requirement for valuation and insurance of collections has increased the focus of senior management on risk management.

After the publication of ANAO report Dr Bill Jonas, then Director of the National Museum of Australia, sent a letter to other directors of national institutions seeking agreement to basic proposals aimed at meeting the ANAO requirements. The need for some formality in the agreement was recognised because of the insurance concerns, the difficulty of obtaining commercial services during particular periods such as Christmas-New Year holidays, and the need to impose some limits on the demands that could arise in the event of a major catastrophe. A meeting of Senior Executives from the different institutions was proposed to discuss issues arising from the ANAO report and to explore cooperation.

At the same time, an informal meeting of museum professionals responsible at the operational level for development of disaster preparedness met and agreed that cooperation would be beneficial and identified some practical means for developing a working party with a working title ‘DISACT’.

DISACT stands for Disaster Preparedness in the Australian Capital Territory, which is the regional name for the area around Canberra. The group includes all the major Commonwealth cultural institutions, including the four that were investigated by ANAO. Other institutions include Screen Sound Australia (formerly the National Film and Sound Archive), the National Archives, the National Herbarium, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and smaller collections belonging to other government departments including Defence and the Attorney-General’s Department. The Cultural Heritage Research Centre of the University of Canberra is represented since this institution trains conservators and can also assist by providing student assistance in an emergency who would also benefit from such experience.

Memorandum of Understanding

With the assistance of Dr Darryl McIntyre, a senior executive at the National Museum of Australia, the author commenced drafting a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). This document was further developed through meetings of DISACT representatives to refine the terms of the agreement. This MOU is now ready for signature by Directors of seven national institutions with the following elements agreed:

  • The stated objective is to improve cooperation between institutions in the event of a disaster that may affect one or more of the institutions.
  • Each institution is responsible for development of its own Disaster Plan but information on the plans may be shared where appropriate to assist the group.
  • The group will aim to have a common standard and format of disaster plan to increase the efficiency of mutual assistance.
  • One annual training exercise will be held on Disaster Recovery Techniques to be arranged by member institutions on a rotational basis to improve communication between staff and between institutions.
  • An annual seminar will be held on issues relevant to Disaster Planning to raise disaster awareness.
  • Members will circulate lists of disaster equipment available for inter-institutional loan and information on ‘common use’ contracts for disaster recovery services.
  • Members agree to provide specialist staff in emergencies and an agreed method will be used to request emergency assistance including providing staff from member institutions to assist for up to two days without undue formality that could delay recovery.
  • Each institution will provide indemnity cover for their staff assisting disaster recovery at other member institutions with the agreement of their own institution.
  • The MOU will be reviewed two years after signature and can include additional signatories with the agreement of the group.
  • Information reports following a significant disaster will be made available to other institutions to assist in the updating of disaster plans.
Collaboration at operational levels

While senior executive support has helped to initiate DISACT staff responsible for disaster management at operational level carry out most of the work of the group. These are mostly middle-ranking professional staff and comprise diverse specialists including conservators, registrars, curators, librarians, building managers and scientists. Meetings are held approximately every three months with a routine agenda covering exchange of information, reporting of any disasters, progress reports on disaster plan development and arrangements for training.

Sharing of information at meetings has proved particularly valuable. The website of the National Library of Australia has a Disaster Plan template ( that is widely used in Australia and many interesting variants and adaptations of the plan have been developed and shared among DISACT members.

Lists of stocks of materials and equipment available for emergency loan are particularly valuable as damage to a building in a fire or flood may destroy an institution’s supplies. The list has also helped identify deficiencies in equipment so that forward purchases of expensive items can be planned. The group has identified the need for more ‘wet and dry’ vacuum cleaners, dehumidifiers and large fans since some items cannot easily be hired from commercial suppliers.

Development of a list of suppliers of emergency services has saved time since the information is compiled and shared by the DISACT group. The services and suppliers cover diverse needs including bulk freezers, freeze-drying, counselling, catering, large dehumidifiers and carpet driers including after hours service numbers. This information proved invaluable at the National Museum of Australia when a flood occurred in the library late at night so a carpet cleaning company could be easily contacted after hours. Prior agreement for emergency service contracts avoids the time-delays of the usual ‘three quotations’ required by Australian government agencies.


DISACT is involved in several levels of disaster training.

Senior Executives.

It is vital that senior executives, such as Assistant Directors, know the risks of a disaster for their institution and clearly understand their role in an emergency. DISACT arranged a training session presented by a specialist consultant, Jeavons Baillie, a former conservator and senior excutive. Senior executives were asked to bring along their disaster plans to a half-day seminar. From the scenarios and questions posed, it was evident that institutions where senior executives knew the disaster plan are far better able to assist recovery operations and to answer media enquiries, which are typically their responsibility. Senior Executives from institutions with a Disaster Plan are also more realistic about the resources required and know that months, rather than days, are required to properly prepare a Disaster Plan. They are more likely to accept this information if they hear it from another executive (such as Baillie) rather than a more junior staff member such as the Head of Conservation.

Disaster Recovery Teams

A particular feature of DISACT is the agreed need for joint training of staff at different institutions in Canberra. Joint training in disaster recovery is organised at least once a year for up to 20 participants from all member institutions. Joint training helps build links between institutions as the person you train with might be the one who turns up to help out in a disaster.

Each institution involved in DISACT organises a group training session on a rotational basis, arranging a course presenter (usually a consultant), venue and materials. This both reduced workloads but also develops organisational skills of members, without undue pressure, since information gathered from past training is passed on from one institution to the next.

Although the most instructive training is real experience of a disaster, fortunately this has not arisen too often! Disasters can be simulated and excellent facilities are available at the Canberra Institute of Technology where it is possible to safely burn or flood typical materials such as discarded paper files, wood, plastics, paintings and old shelves and storage cabinets for realistic disaster recovery scenarios.

Annual Seminar on disaster issues

The MOU aims to have an annual seminar on relevant topics to raise awareness among all staff working with Canberra’s cultural and scientific collections. In 1999 a half-day seminar was presented. One talk covered security issues (relevant because of recent revisions of Australian Standards for security and the impending Sydney 2000 Olympics). The other presentation examined how planning for Y2K might be utilised to assist Disaster Planning, since cultural institutions are increasingly vulnerable to loss of collection information (particularly affecting storage locations) in the event of failure of computer systems. Topics identified for future seminars include presentations by fire experts on new developments in fire detection and suppression systems and managing disaster preparedness during building renovations.

Fire drills and Disaster Plan awareness training.

Fire drills and information sessions to raise staff awareness of institutional disaster plans is a responsibility of each institution but DISACT members have agreed to share information and experiences in how best to manage this training. A training package has been prepared by the author using the Microsoft Power Point computer program that might be adapted to suit a wide range of cultural and scientific collections. Disaster awareness training should be compulsory for all staff at each institution, with the Director attending as a good example.

There is no point in having a plan if no one knows about it. In less than one hour basic information can be given on importance of following the plan, the availability of emergency information including who to contact, location and usage of emergency equipment, and a other basic information about the recovery plan.

Fire drills are required by law for all public buildings and are often conducted by contractors certified by the local Fire Brigade. Training covers information about alarms, safety instructions and the responsibilities of the emergency services personnel. Fire drills are also the responsibility of each institution, but the DISACT group share information about training requirements and identify gaps so training can be continuously improved.

Sustaining the effort

It is too easy to have ambitious plans that cannot be sustained. DISACT aims to keep arrangements as simple as possible and to minimise the demands on members via some basic stipulations:

  • Don't ‘re-invent the wheel’, use information that is already available on the World Wide Web.
  • Don't put all energies into writing a plan at the expense of implementation actions such as purchases of materials and equipment.
  • Share information of common benefit to cut time required to prepare disaster plans.
  • Share experiences with other institutions. A regular DISACT agenda item is to discuss and learn from experiences of disasters or serious near misses.
  • Set realistic targets aiming for gradual improvement. For example, aim for one training session per year, but feel pleased if two are achieved.
  • Gradual improvement is more realistic and is crucially dependent on resources. It is not realistic to expect that everyone will have a big plan ready and implemented right away, even the Australian National Audit Office did not expect this.
  • Accept that it is not possible for all disaster recovery teams at an institution to take time off for training at one time. Training a few high priority staff at a joint training session is more achievable, especially when funds are limited. Most institutions can afford to train two staff at A$250 each (approximately 1,000 FF each) rather than six people for A$1500 (~6,000FF). Small institutions could never afford to organise their own training and would much rather join forces with other institutions if costs can be shared.
  • Accept that we cannot fund everything at once: prioritisation is essential.

Frequently the biggest difficulty in finalising a disaster plan is identifying the items which require highest protection to prevent damage or that require priority salvage in an emergency. This may seem like asking curators ‘which of their children should be rescued first’? However, this information greatly aids planning for emergencies.

Some ‘internationally significant’ and ‘nationally significant’ category A and B objects, defined according to the Hague Convention, may be obvious in some institutions. For example, an extinct preserved Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) is a category A object at the National Museum of Australia.

It can be difficult to identify high significance and high value items if no recent surveys or valuations are available. Registrars are often able to use insurance data to help develop lists for priority salvage based on value but curatorial information is essential for significance data. Difficulties also arise where it is the completeness of a scientific collection that gives the collection its greatest value, rather than the value of individual items, for example systematic taxonomy collections. Devolution of responsibility of collections and changes to curatorial roles, which is common for natural history collections, can sometimes cloud the division of responsibilities, but it is obviously essential that someone is responsible for decisions about salvage lists.

Plans for the future of DISACT

It is proposed to develop a basic website providing information for local disaster management needs. There is an enormous amount of information on the World Wide Web and there is no need to duplicate it. The website will have two main parts: public information and password-protected information. The public part of the DISACT website will have some basic information on the DISACT group and a copy of the MOU, with a few links to other good disaster management websites. However, it is the password-protected part of the site that will be of most value to DISACT members. This will contain vital documents such as lists of materials and equipment available, staff contact lists and contractor details. This can be updated regularly and printed off when updating institutional disaster plans. DISACT is fortunate in having a member who is familiar with setting up websites and the site will be hosted through the National Herbarium. This will take up to 12 months, being realistic.

The MOU is sufficiently flexible to allow additional members to be incorporated provided they can meet the conditions of provision of insurance cover and a basic disaster plan. It is desirable to include local Australian Capital Territory government institutions and they have indicated interest with proposals to be developed over the next 12 months.

While disaster plans are most commonly managed by conservators, registrars and facilities managers are vital in any plan. Registrars manage storage areas and collection databases so they have vital knowledge for planning evacuation of collections after floods and labelling of high priority items (category A and B material). Facilities managers typically organise building maintenance, fire protection services and personnel evacuation. Many facilities managers also have extensive contact with Emergency Services, which can be invaluable in emergencies.

While there is no formal written three-year plan, it is a basic aim to ensure that each collecting institution in Canberra has a basic disaster plan and that, over several years, training will be provided to all staff on disaster recovery teams providing a quorum of experience.

DISACT as a model for other places

Cooperation on disaster preparedness has several successful precedents & indeed much had been done in Canberra to improve local collaboration following the 1985 National Library fire. The cooperation in Sydney has been sustained for over 10 years. Similar 'mutual assistance' arrangements have also been developed in Canada between national institutions in Ottawa, the M25 group of libraries in Britain ( and the IELDRN library group in California ( The Ottawa Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) was signed in a formal ceremony with some fanfare and also had links to Y2K preparations [3].

DISACT seems to have many elements of all these different models that are known to the author (eg mutual assistance, training, seminars, website) but the linking of cooperation at both Senior Executive and operational levels through a formal agreement and training is perhaps unusual. The DISACT group covers very diverse types of collections including large technology collections (planes & tanks at the Australian War Memorial), scientific collections (National Herbarium) and security-sensitive Defence archives, whereas many groups elsewhere concentrate on libraries or archives. The diversity of models found in different locations suggest that good ideas can arise spontaneously in different locations: there may be a model already out there that suits your local needs or selected elements from different models may be adaptable to specific situations.

Many DISACT institutions have participated in disaster recovery and planning operations in remote regions of Australia (eg storm damage at Aboriginal cultural centres) and in Asia-Pacific countries including Fiji and Cambodia. From this experience we believe some elements of our DISACT model could be adapted to remote areas and less economically developed countries although there are significant advantages in good infrastructure and modern telecommunications.


Three strong conclusions arise from the experience in Canberra:

  • Training of senior executives encourages them to ensure adequate resources for Disaster Preparedness and to agree to emergency contracts for rapid engagement of commercial recovery services.
  • Sharing information of practical benefit at the operational level helps prevent 'reinventing the wheel' and speeds progress in developing and implementing Disaster Plans.
  • Joint training means smaller institutions can join with larger organisations to organise realistic disaster recovery exercises at a lower overall cost.


[1] The Auditor-General, 1998
Safeguarding Our National Collections
Audit Report Number 8 Performance Audit
Australian National Audit Office, Canberra

[2] Waller, R 1999
Internal pollutants, risk assessment and conservation priorities
ICOM Committee for Conservation 12th Triennial Meeting, Lyon
James and James Science Publishers, London

[3] Tremain, D 2000
Emergency Cooperation between Cultural Institutions in the National Capital Region
Canadian Conservation Institute Newsletter No.25 May 2000.


Jeavons Baillie demonstrated the importance of gaining senior executive support for the development based on his experience with academic libraries in Victoria.

Dr Darryl McIntyre of the National Museum of Australia played an important role in the development of the DISACT Memorandum of Understanding.

DISACT members contributed numerous ideas and professional support.


Un rapport en 1998 par le bureau national australien de audit a trouvé beaucoup d'insuffisances dans l'état de préparation de désastre à quatre établissements culturels nationaux principaux à Canberra, Australie. Tandis qu'on l'identifiait que beaucoup d'insuffisances étaient dues au manque de ressources, il était néanmoins nécessaire d'adresser instamment ces problèmes. En conséquence, des stratégies de coopération ont été développées par des représentants de tous les établissements culturels et scientifiques dans la ville pour améliorer l'état de préparation de désastre.

Ceci a inclus le développement d'un protocole d'accord prévoyant l'aide mutuelle de secours; partage d'information et de matériel; et la formation pour réduire des coûts et pour améliorer l'efficacité. Les stratégies de formation soulignent l'importance d'assurer la conscience de désastre à tous les niveaux de la responsabilité, y compris les cadres supérieurs.

Plusieurs modèles pour la coopération d'état de préparation de désastre utilisée en Australie et au Canada sont brièvement comparés. Le modèle de Canberra pourrait être modifié pour être approprié pour beaucoup de diverses situations où les professionnels du musée doivent effectuer des résultats avec les fonds limités et les effectifs restreints.

Updated 12 August, 2005 , webmaster, CPBR (