Northern States Conservation Center

Providing collection care, preservation and conservation treatment services to collectors and collecting institutions.

Collections Caretaker

Vol.2 No.1 Spring 1999 Fire Recovery
Recovering from a fire, flood or earthquake: An organized response makes all the difference

by Helen Alten

While museum disasters seem rare, they happen more often than most people think. Fires, floods, collapsed roofs, high winds and mechanical failures have damaged collections at numerous museums. In the Upper Midwest, a rough tally suggests that nearly 20 collections have been damaged by disasters in the past five years.

A fire that destroyed the Hubert H. Humphrey Museum motivated the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums and Northern States Conservation Center to examine how small museums respond to disasters.

The Alliance has a mutual assistance agreement between its member institutions. However, museums did not have consistent training in recovery activities. So two Alliance meetings were devoted to recovery training.

At the first, a response protocol was developed. Staff who had been through a recovery identified retaining control as the biggest problem. The A.R.K.: A Recovery Kit was the solution developed by Alliance representatives and the Northern States Conservation Center. The A.R.K. is a set of laminated position descriptions with bulleted lists of responsibilities. Positions were developed from the Incident Command System, an emergency response procedure for firemen and police. Over 100 Minnesota museum staff keep the A.R.K. in their cars, where it is always handy if an emergency occurs.

The second workshop taught wet collections recovery using the A.R.K. flow charts and the Southeastern Registrars Association's Steal This Handbook! A Template for Creating a Museum's Emergency Plan. In brief, when disaster strikes you have 48 to 72 hours to stabilize your site. Initial response may take up to five days in a major disaster. You will need people, supplies and services.

By default, the first person to enter the scene is the Incident Commander. That person retains the position until relieved by someone who that first person feels can do the job better.

Within the first hour, the Incident Commander must stabilize the site and begin an organized response.

(within an hour) 1. Make sure all staff and visitors are out of the building and safe.
2. Call for help:

Often outside lines work when local lines do not. Arrange an out-of-state contact person.

3. If possible and safe, shut off electricity/gas/water.
4. Record damage immediately. Take photographs or video and write detailed notes. (within 24 hours)
5. Set up a command center with phones, office furniture and room for meetings and press conferences.
6. Develop and implement an action plan. Revise as information is received.
7. Meet with volunteers, board and staff as soon as possible. Emphasize that only the Media Officer talks to outsiders.
8. Set up regular debriefings and information exchange.

As helpers arrive, each has a role.

The Operations Officer stabilizes the building(s) and collection. Operations is the action arm of the recovery team and executes the action plan.

The Logistics Officer provides facilities, services and material to support recovery and stabilization. This position is the oil that makes recovery operate smoothly.

The Security and Registration Officer is responsible for making sure people are safe and the collection isn't stolen or further damaged. This person is the watchdog of the recovery process and records all people or items that enter or leave the recovery site(s).

The Media Officer is the contact person for all press and outsiders. This person is the voice of the recovery process.

The Finance Officer is responsible for all financial aspects of the incident. This person keeps track of staff and volunteer time, purchases, contracts and rental agreements.

An active person needs to drink at least two quarts of water each day. Hot environments and physical activity can double that amount. Plan one gallon of water per person per day.

For a small museum, some of these positions may be shared. In a large museum, some of the tasks may be split among more people. But, in general, these six people are the core recovery team leaders. They meet regularly. At the end of each day they meet to debrief and change the action plan as needed. The six must work together to ensure a smooth, rapid, safe recovery.

Here is an example of how they split their duties:

Phone calls:

Phone calls:
Phone calls:
Phone calls:
Phone calls:
By the end of the first day you will be exhausted. Before the day is completed, the site and recovery center must be secured. The Finance Officer receives receipts or an oral accounting of services and supplies purchased or charged. Everyone notes down the time that they worked and gives it to the Finance Officer. The Officers meet to debrief and plan the next day.

Excerpts from A.R.K.: A Recovery Kit were reprinted with permission. The A.R.K. is copyrighted and may not be replicated without permission.

For information on the Alliance's Mutual Assistance Agreement contact Lois Gaetz, Sherburne County Historical Society, 13122 First Street, Becker, MN 55308.

P.O. Box 8081, St. Paul, MN 55108   Phone: (651) 659-9420

© 2002 Northern States Conservation Center

Updated 11 May 2002