All in a day's disaster

All in a day's disaster
A discussion of our emergency preparedness training
13 June 2013

The words "leak", "drip" and "fire" make me anxious. I don't even want to contemplate the amount of work a leaking pipe would create, let alone a full scale fire with sprinklers going off. Last month the Library held full day disaster preparedness training. This is the fourth time that I have taken this course, but disaster training is a bit like getting your first aid certificate; you hope you never have to use it but must keep the knowledge up to date.

Setting up the drying table for photographs

Setting up the drying table for photographs

In 1985 a fire broke out in one of the ceilings that caused smoke to be carried through the air conditioning. In that event, tens of thousands of books were soot damaged, and while the Library closed its doors for a relatively short time, the consequences of the damage and the work needed to recover was felt over many years. This event was the impetus for the creation of disaster plans in cultural institutions and saw the birth of our own Collection Preparedness Plan. The Library has now become a leader in the creating such working documents. As part of this Plan, the Library offers yearly disaster recovery training to its staff.  A disaster doesn't have to be a major fire; it could be an undiscovered water leak, insect plague or dust cloud. Our training is designed to ensure that staff  know what they are capable of doing, once the area has been declared safe. Specifically:

  • The prioritisation of tasks
  • Communication strategies so that everyone knew their role and everything is documented
  • Techniques for minimal intervention to salvage items

For our training, facilitator Kim Morris – a former staff member who was there for the '85 fire – converted our "Brindabella room" into a mock disaster zone. Different kinds of collection items including photographs, negatives, boxes, books and pamphlets were given different levels of damage; everything from being hit by makeshift sprinklers to being completely submerged. [Please note, no actual collection objects were used in this is training] At first sight it is a bit overwhelming and the instinct is to rush in, but what should be done first? Nothing. There is to be no random scrambling about to get things out of water. The first steps are to assess the situation, prioritise and divide up the tasks. We set up teams: site assessment, transport, recovery area, supplies. Planning and division of labour are an essential part for rescuing the collection. Much of the priority will be centered on how badly affected items are, how effective moving them will be and how much space we have to affect an efficient triage system. The Library has a register of priority items, and collection managers are aware of these items in their specific collections. If the items are not fragile and not too wet it is possible to dry the items immediately. Alternatively it might be necessary freeze items to buy us more time. In this year’s training we identified a choke point in our triage when there isn’t a conservator present in the recovery area. When there is uncertainty over what process is best for each type of item this slows down the processing, causes transport to back up, increases stress on the rescuers and the likelihood of damage. Importantly, not all items have to go directly to Preservation. Much of the labour of drying can be done by people like you and me. Every situation is different, and some decisions to leave material behind have to be based on conditions on the day. Crucial to all activities is documentation and team communication. Without consistent and thorough recording of which item is being sent where, and for what treatment, items can be further damaged, lost or the process itself slowed down in confusion. Previously item tracking could only be done with pencil and paper but now we also have access to tablet computers. Depending on the nature of a disaster, this could let us keep track of object movements by updating the live catalogue.

Newer technology is not always better, but does come with its advantages.

Newer technology is not always better, but does come with its advantages.

Debriefing over a cuppa works wonders too! Not everyone will be able to work in the aftermath of a disaster, and these make-believe scenarios are important for everyone in our team to feel confident that they’re up to the challenge of preserving our heritage.