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An Introduction to Disaster Preparedness and Recovery

"Experience is the best of schoolmasters, but the school fees are heavy"

(Thomas Carlyle, 19th century historian.)

Disaster Plans

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 process
  • 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 plans.

Contents of a Disaster Plan

A disaster plan should contain four key elements;

  • prevention
  • response preparedness
  • reaction
  • recovery.

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, including;

  • 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
    -maintenance standards,
    -familiarity with the layout,
    -maintenance of emergency lighting

  • potential chemical hazards
    -storage quality and maintenance

  • water
    -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,

  • fire
    -condition and location of sprinklers, fire extinguishers, etc,
    -bush fire risk and bush fire-fighting arrangements

  • pests
    -key potential pests
    -suspect areas
    -hazard source.

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.

Response preparedness:

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 updated regularly.


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 off) and
    - 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 protective clothing.

  • 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 phased out.

  • 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 fibres

Disaster Supplies:

Safety Equipment:

  • 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 you'll need.

Provide plenty of clean drinking water.

Provide also disinfectants to clean up after handling flood damaged collections (particularly where mould is a danger).

Recovery Equipment:

[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;

plastic sheeting

vacuum cleaners (wet/dry)

squeegees and mops



Chux (or Wettex or similar)

electrical extension chords

power boards

rubber gloves


garbage bins


To record the disaster and its effects;


notepad and pencils

measuring tape

Useful general equipment;

box for hand tools



utility ("Stanley") knives

staple gun

step ladders

Containers and materials for collecting, moving and labeling material;

plastic basins

garbage bins

freezer wrap/wax paper


garbage bags

gaffer tape

fish crates

plastic bags

cotton tape


packaging tape


pallet trolley

waterproof marker pens

plastic tie-on labels

plastic pegs


Materials for preliminary cleaning and interleaving of books and files;


paper toweling

cotton swabs

weights for flattening and pressing

butcher's paper (or clean newsprint)

cotton wool

retractable clothes line

folding clothes stands

a variety of brushes

synthetic sponges


Materials for cleaning and drying of textiles;

large white towels

hair dryers




Harvey, Ross (1990) Preservation in Australian and New Zealand Libraries: Principles, Strategies and Practices for Librarians. Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University, Riverina.

Kletz, Trevor (1993) Lessons from disaster : how organizations have no memory and accidents recur. Institution of Chemical Engineers: Rugby, England.


Updated 12 August, 2005 , webmaster, CPBR (