An Introduction to Disaster Preparedness and Recovery
"Experience is the best of schoolmasters,
but the school fees are heavy"
(Thomas Carlyle, 19th century historian.)
Any organisation which takes its business seriously
will have analysed the risks facing it and have prepared a disaster
plan. Note however, this is not the emergency procedures which an
organisation may have to ensure the safety of people, but the plan
which comes into effect once the safety of people (the primary response)
is guaranteed. Such a plan provides the organisation with the strategy
and guidelines for the recovery of affected property and the recommencement
of their business. That property could be computer tapes in a bank
or textiles in a museum.
Organisations housing cultural collections
should see this approach as a risk management plan or, as Ross Harvey
(1990) puts it, "a set of rehearsed actions which will minimise
the effects of a disaster, whatever its magnitude". Such a strategy
is aimed at getting the operations up and running again as soon
as practicable. A good well-publicised and resourced plan can prevent
an emergency from becoming a disaster and perhaps from degenerating
into a tragedy. Many insurance companies recognise the value of
such plans and their premiums are lower where the insured organisation
possesses emergency procedures and disaster plans.
For a cultural collecting institution, disasters
and emergencies include not only cyclones, fires, floods and earthquakes
but also burst pipes, insect infestations, toxic spills, computer
viruses, theft and vandalism or major air-conditioning malfunctions.
It's important to realise that many disasters are the result of
a domino effect; a minor malfunction cascading to a major incident.
Disaster prevention requires an attitude within
an organisation towards;
- provision of appropriate buildings and services
- timely maintenance
- good housekeeping and
- well trained staff.
It's very important in any disaster planning
process to keep the systems and procedures simple.
Simplicity is strength.
The more complex the plan, the less likely
anyone is to remember it when they need it. The plan should be broadly
known, up to date and readily available within the institution.
If only a few administrators are familiar with the plan then, if
they go, the knowledge goes with them. Trevor Kletz (1993), in his
book "Lessons from Disaster", notes "organisations have no memory;
only people have memories and they move on".
Objectives of a Disaster Plan
The general objectives of a disaster plan are;
- to anticipate key risk factors and reduce them where possible
- to ensure that staff are well trained (with regular updates)
at detecting and responding to incidents and the disasters that
they might escalate to and are efficient in the disaster recovery
- to provide a structure which allows outside agencies (who
are briefed to understand the collections special needs) to be
called in where necessary
- flexibility, allowing constant revision and improvement,
particularly in building on experience gained,
- to get the organisation back on its feet and operating
as quickly and as safely as possible, a particularly important
objective in organisations with public programs.
The disaster plan should tie in closely with
the procedures adopted by the institution's emergency control organisation
so that the safety of the disaster recovery team can be monitored.
It's clear that within an organisation, many of the same people
who draft the emergency plan will be involved in the drafting of
the disaster recovery plan. In a museum these would undoubtedly
include the chief executive officer (or his delegate), curators,
the registrar, the chief of security, the building and services
manager/s and conservators; these linkages should provide integrated
Contents of a Disaster Plan
A disaster plan should contain four key elements;
- response preparedness
In any disaster plan, prevention is the most
important element. Disasters can originate from three sources; natural,
technical or human. The first and last of these can only be countered
by appropriate security and preparedness. Technical disasters are
avoided by good maintenance practices.
An organisation committed to maintaining a
healthy and safe work place for staff and visitors and a secure
environment for its collections would already have programs instituted
which provide for such issues as;
- appropriate security
- good housekeeping
- maintenance of buildings and plant
- appropriate work practices
- staff training and awareness
- storage and facilities which satisfy regulations
- safeguards to avoid unsafe or unauthorised modifications
to buildings or fittings
- liaison with emergency services
- provision of safety equipment and safe operating procedures
for equipment and substances.
These are all areas of concern in establishing
the preventive phase of a counter disaster strategy. Intimate familiarity
with the building and its services is important in the counter-disaster
planning process. A hazard survey should therefore be undertaken
to assess the building's vulnerabilities and those of its services,
- geographic or topographic characteristics
-on a flood plain
-on a major highway with heavy truck traffic (toxic spills procedures?)
-proximity to emergency services
-reliable power and water?
- electrical services
-familiarity with the layout,
-maintenance of emergency lighting
- potential chemical hazards
-storage quality and maintenance
-known sources of leaks or water access during flooding or storms,
-condition of roofing,
-location of pipes and cut-off valves,
-inspection programs for storm/flood events,
-condition and location of sprinklers, fire extinguishers, etc,
-bush fire risk and bush fire-fighting arrangements
-key potential pests
Having conducted such surveys it is essential
that all results be recorded. These then provide the basis for a
feedback loop of surveys to regularly update the hazard assessment.
These accumulated records may prove an invaluable planning tool
if funding for major remedial, renovation or new building works
become available. It's worth noting however that such building works
also pose a hazard.
It is important to report to staff on these
surveys to help raise their awareness.
The response component in a disaster preparedness
planning process is that where;
- the response team is identified and trained,
- the necessary documentation is established (floor plans,
phone lists, etc),
- locations for carrying out recovery work are identified,
- the equipment and outside service providers necessary for
the reaction and recovery phase are identified and, where appropriate,
materials are stockpiled.
The disaster response team needs to contain
people who have a good knowledge of the organisation's collections
and activities; they should know what the priorities are in these
areas. They also need to have decision-making powers and to be prepared
for the pressure of such emergencies.
The equipment required for the reaction phase
of a disaster can be quite basic; a list of such material is at
the end of this document. It is best located in a cupboard or trolley
in the area where it's needed.
When planning the response phase, assume that
the worst might happen and your services might go down. Have contingency
plans in place for alternative power, lighting, water and perhaps,
even communication alternatives to phones. A very practical way
to assess the usefulness of a plan is to run a simulation exercise,
perhaps even with dummy material requiring "salvage". Such testing
will reveal the inadequacies and confusions that might render the
plan ineffective in a real emergency. The plan is a living document
and as such needs regular updating to cope with the changes in staff,
building layout and equipment.
After a disaster most organisations will need
to get back into operation as soon as possible. Make a risk assessment
of your curatorial control documentation. It's good planning to
ensure that copies of vital and irreplaceable records such as registers,
card files and/or computer records are kept in a different location.
There must however be procedures in force ensuring that these are
In an emergency the first reactive phase is
to safeguard lives with an alarm and evacuation. This is the role
of the organisation's emergency control procedures. If the organisation
lacks well publicised and rehearsed alarm and evacuation procedures
then it is essential that these be instituted immediately.
The emergency control contact list should include
as one of its key contacts the leader of the disaster response team.
This person's role is to;
- decide whether the team needs to be assembled,
- in consultation with the emergency control team or official
emergency services, determine the safety of the site,
- if it's a small scale emergency,
- ensure services are inactivated where necessary (e.g. a small
leak might require the water mains and electrical services switched
- call key maintenance staff, e.g. plumbers, electricians,
- upon entry make an initial assessment of the damage and
the resources required,
- ensure hazards are cleared where possible and safe practices
are followed by their team members.
At this stage the team is ready to remove the
threatened and/or damaged material. If collections are to remain
in the emergency area, precautions should be taken to stabilise
the area, e.g. remove trip hazards, clear passage ways, replace
locks if necessary, make sure damaged services such as pipes are
repaired or locked off and generally provide for the security of
the area. If there is any danger of further damage, the remaining
material should be removed or protected if appropriate. Danger of
an overhead water leak may perhaps be countered with a covering
of plastic sheeting over threatened material. If there has been
water damage, fans and dehumidifiers need to be installed to dry
and circulate the air. Dead air spaces can result in serious mould
problems. Note, however, that wherever possible, it's best to remove
the collections from harms way.
This phase involves the removal and attempted
restoration of material to a stable and/or useable condition and
also the rehabilitation of the disaster site. At this stage your
assessment might be that the scale of your disaster is beyond you.
It would be wise then to call for professional help from conservators;
call the conservation departments of your nearest state library,
museum and/or archive.
The removal of collections requires appropriate
packaging and supports. Be very careful to provide good documentation
where collections may be separated, have lost their labeling, or
be fragmented. It's crucially important that there is good curatorial
control of the removal of material from a disaster site and it is
again worth noting that well run disaster simulations can help train
staff to deal confidently with real emergencies.
Water-damaged material should be removed to
a dry, spacious area with good air circulation. If the disaster
occurs during wet weather then it's good contingency planning to
have pre-arranged emergency access to a hall or gym. The particular
needs of specific collections cannot be addressed here however the
attached bibliography is annotated to indicate salvage techniques
for particular materials. At this stage you will almost certainly
need the input of a professional.
If the rehabilitation of the site involves
refurbishment or rebuilding, seize the opportunity to rectify deficiencies
and structural threats to the collections.
The final crucial phase of any disaster planning
process is to build in an evaluation procedure involving all concerned
parties. It's very easy to get swallowed up by the extra work generated
by an emergency but hard-nosed evaluation of the successes and failures
of the process are essential to continuous improvement of the plan.
Similarly, the plan should contain specified review provisions and
also specify the personnel charged with carrying these out.
Some Health and Safety Issues:
This is by no means an exhaustive listing but
gives an indication of the kinds of issues involved. All of these
observations are words of wisdom from real disaster experiences.
- Is your tetanus immunisation up to date? It might also
be wise to get hepatitis shots if flooding with polluted water
is a risk.
- Flood water can be contaminated with human waste, agricultural
waste including pesticides and industrial waste or whatever else
is upstream. Be extremely careful therefore with wounds; wear
- In a flood be extremely careful of wading in water; apart from
hidden hazards there is a danger of encountering live electrical
wiring. Electrocution is however not the only electrical hazard;
electrical sparking can also ignite ruptured gas lines.
- Electrical equipment involved in a disaster should not be turned
on even if it appears unaffected. Get it checked out first even
if it shows no water damage. In a fire, corrosive gases might
be given off when PVC plastics or Halon gas (fire suppression
systems) are involved. These gases can cause very rapid corrosion
on the internal parts of equipment, particularly fine electronic
surfaces. Halon gas fire fighting systems are however getting
pretty rare; it's a green-house gas and is therefore just about
- Be very wary of mould and take appropriate precautions if it
occurs (see the handout on mould). Don't deal with mould if you're
allergic to it.
- Flooding often flushes out a range of animals and insects (rats,
snakes and spiders for example). Be wary of these; they might
choose your building as their refuge from flood waters.
- Be aware of the effects of stress in the recovery staff. Disasters
often look worse than they are. This combined with fatigue and
the sense of loss may affect decision-making. Insist on regular
breaks and refreshment. Counseling may be necessary.
- Toxic gases and hazardous dusts may be given off by burning
building and collection materials. The commonest examples of these
are plastics, lead-based paints and materials containing mineral
- Protective clothing including boots, water-proof clothing,
dust masks (for toxic dusts such as mould and other biological
hazards, for flaking lead paint after a fire etc) and heavy gloves.
- Torches and/or lanterns. A generator may also be a part
of the emergency response supplies.
- First aid kits.
- Whatever else that commonsense or experience tells you
Provide plenty of clean drinking water.
Provide also disinfectants to clean up after handling
flood damaged collections (particularly where mould is a danger).
[You may not need to stock up on all this equipment.
It's unlikely that you will need to own dehumidifiers; these are
readily available from some hire companies as are fans, generators
etc. It's wise to find out and keep a record of where you can get
what you need when you desperately need it.]
To clean up and stabilise the environment;
vacuum cleaners (wet/dry)
squeegees and mops
Chux (or Wettex or similar)
electrical extension chords
To record the disaster and its effects;
notepad and pencils
Useful general equipment;
box for hand tools
utility ("Stanley") knives
Containers and materials for collecting, moving
and labeling material;
freezer wrap/wax paper
waterproof marker pens
plastic tie-on labels
Materials for preliminary cleaning and interleaving
of books and files;
weights for flattening and pressing
butcher's paper (or clean newsprint)
retractable clothes line
folding clothes stands
a variety of brushes
Materials for cleaning and drying of textiles;
large white towels
Harvey, Ross (1990) Preservation in Australian
and New Zealand Libraries: Principles, Strategies and Practices
for Librarians. Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt
Kletz, Trevor (1993) Lessons from disaster
: how organizations have no memory and accidents recur. Institution
of Chemical Engineers: Rugby, England.