7 Resources for Disaster Preparedness in Heritage

by | Jun 19, 2024 | Blog, Disaster preparedness

In the realm of cultural heritage preservation, disaster preparedness should stand as a cornerstone of safeguarding our invaluable artifacts and historical records. Museums and cultural heritage organizations face a myriad of challenges in ensuring their survival against both natural and man-made disasters. There will not be much point to meticulously controlling temperature and relative humidity, if we are not prepared to deal with a large-scale flood or any other event that may require evacuation. Recognizing the need for comprehensive disaster preparedness strategies in heritage, here are seven resources to offer guidance and appropriate tools for cultural heritage organizations to plan for potential catastrophes.

The Risk Assessment Process Manual

The Risk Assessment Process Manual, compiled by the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialist (ARCS) Emergency Programming Sub-Committee provides a solid starting point for conducting risk assessments within museums and cultural institutions. In only 8 pages, it emphasizes the importance of identifying and managing potential hazards to protect collections, staff, and visitors. The manual outlines a structured approach to conducting risk assessments, including identifying hazards, determining their likelihood and potential impact, and developing strategies to mitigate risks.

Key aspects of the risk assessment process include:

  • Identifying Hazards: This involves listing all potential hazards that could adversely impact the institution, considering both internal and external threats. The document suggests starting with the Ten Agents of Deterioration (physical forces, fire, pests, light, relative humidity, temperature, theft, water, pollutants, and dissociation) and examining previous incidents or near-misses to identify patterns and potential repeat events due to existing risks.
  • Evaluating the Magnitude of Risk: By considering the exposure of employees and collections to hazards and the potential (and cost) for loss, institutions can prioritize risks and develop action plans for mitigation and preparedness. The manual stresses that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to risk assessment, and each institution must tailor its methods to its unique situation and facilities.
  • Risk Mitigation and Preparedness: Once hazards and their risks have been identified, the next step is to develop strategies to eliminate or minimize these risks. This includes reviewing available health and safety information, understanding legislated requirements, training staff, and monitoring the effectiveness of implemented controls.

The manual also provides guidance on how to engage all staff and interested parties in the risk assessment process, emphasizing the importance of collaboration and buy-in from administration for successful risk management.

The Emergency Planning & Response Program

“The Florida Association of Museums Foundation’s (FAMF) Emergency Planning & Response Program is the result of a partnership between FAMF, Florida Humanities and the National Endowment of the Humanities.”

Our favorite part of this particular program is the extensive set of videos created by well-known collections disaster prep consultant Rebecca Kennedy, at Curae Collections Care LLC, to guide organizations through the process of emergency planning. There are seven steps to the guide, each supplemented with videos explaining the process behind each step, as well as additional resources provided on each page. The guide moves through conducting risk assessments, identifying responders and their roles, developing response and evacuation procedures, generating forms and other additional resources.

The Canadian Conservation Institute Emergency Action Plan

The CCI Emergency Action Plan made by the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) provides a structured approach for museums and cultural institutions to respond to emergencies. It is designed as a tear-out worksheet to be filled out during an emergency, guiding staff through immediate actions to protect people, limit damage, preserve property, and recover from various types of emergencies. Please note that this particular sheet is only a worksheet within the CCI Emergency Response Planning workbook – which is handed out to participants of the Emergency and Disaster Preparedness for Cultural Institutions workshop.

The plan is divided into sections for different phases of an emergency response:

  • Protect People: This section outlines actions to ensure the safety of staff and visitors, including evacuating the premises, providing personal protective equipment (PPE), roping off hazards, and isolating mold.
  • Limit the Damage: Actions here focus on minimizing further harm to the collection and building, such as covering exposed furniture, containing leaks, shutting off water, raising objects off the floor, dehumidifying, ventilating, and monitoring for mold growth. There is also a really handy section to identify how many items may have been affected.
  • Preserve Property: This section divides itself into subsections depending on whether the actions are related to salvage or recovery. The final Recovery phase covers actions taken after the immediate threat has passed, such as buying time by freezing wet objects, cleaning and drying objects, rehousing dry objects, and removing damaged building materials. They include tips on isolation, packing, drying, freezing, and some cleaning procedures as well as moving equipment, records and objects to safer places.
  • Priority materials: Although just a single sheet, there is a small section with check boxes to help the user identify materials that may require priority salvage and recovery. A handy little list indicating loan items and sensitive materials like gilding, skins, polychrome surfaces and sensitive photographs, among others, may help a lot during an emergency.
  • Resources: It provides a thorough checklist of resources that includes simple items such as buckets, mops, and polyethylene sheeting, as well as PPE materials, vehicles, off-site spaces and even a checkbox for potential contractor needs (like extra conservators or support.)

The CCI Emergency Action Plan is designed to be flexible and adaptable to the specific needs of each institution, allowing for customization based on the type of emergency and the resources available. It emphasizes the importance of quick and decisive action to protect lives, collections, and infrastructure during emergencies.

The Pocket Response Plan (PReP)™

The Pocket Response Plan (PReP)™ creation guide was originally created by the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) for State Archives and Record Management Programs. It was designed to be portable, as its name suggests, and its purpose is to provide basic information and guidance required during the first 24-72 hours of an emergency event.

The PReP™ is formatted as a two-sided, legal-sized document that can be folded to the size of a credit card, making it portable and accessible in emergencies. Some staff keep it safely behind their institutional name tags so that it is easily accessible in case of emergency.

  • Side A is all about communications and has spaces to keep contact information for the various institutions, decision-makers, vendors, mutual aid partners, as well as emergency services and other important providers in case of emergency. It is mostly your long list of names and phone numbers – the essential answers to the classic: Who’re you gonna call?
  • Side B (Actions) of the PReP™ covers steps for coordinating response, establishing communication, providing or coordinating emergency response services, protecting vital and confidential records, and educating and training responders. This side is mostly a useful checklist to make sure that you have covered your bases when there is a chance you may be feeling overwhelmed by a complicated situation.

Due to the nature of the information it contains, the PReP™ should be able to cover any kind of emergency, including natural disasters, accidents, attacks, and other similar emergencies. It is not meant to replace a comprehensive emergency plan but to provide critical information and guidance needed in the initial stages of an emergency, especially when staff members may be away from their offices.

Once you have your full emergency plan written out, it’s definitely worth making some time to fill in Side A of the PReP™ and printing out copies for all your staff. While it was originally created by Archives, this handy little tool is also perfect for museums, galleries and libraries!

Emergency Response for Natural History Collections

Now that we’ve mentioned having a little PReP™ to keep the key communication details from your full emergency response plan, you might think that’s great, but maybe we need that full plan first. So here’s a fantastic resource to get you started.

Developing an Emergency Response Plan for Natural History Collections presented by David Tremain at the SPNHC 2004 Conference, emphasizes the critical importance of having a comprehensive emergency response plan for museums, especially those housing natural history collections. The document begins by highlighting the inherent risks associated with museum locations, such as susceptibility to earthquakes, and the potential catastrophic impacts on museums and their collections. It underscores the necessity of emergency preparedness, despite the common belief that such events won’t happen or that external emergency services will handle them.

The document outlines the key components of an effective disaster preparedness plan, including:

  • What should be done, who should do it, when, where, why, and how: This ensures a clear and actionable plan that minimizes damage and confusion during emergencies.
  • Four key points of emergency planning: Preventing the event, mitigating its effects, fostering cohesive teamwork, and ensuring proper training of the right personnel.
  • Getting Management Support: Highlighting the importance of securing buy-in from senior management, as their endorsement is crucial for the plan’s success. The document suggests adopting a Business Continuity Planning (BCP) approach to justify the need for an emergency plan, considering the financial implications of potential closures or significant disruptions.

One of our favorite things about how this paper has been presented is its focus on important questions that our plans should be able to answer:

  • Who needs to be involved in the planning?
  • What needs to be done, and in what order?
  • What needs to be protected?
  • What does it need to be protected from? What are the identifiable threats and hazards?
  • Where can we get information and/or help?
  • What should be included in the plan?

If you find you can answer all of these questions, you are well on your way to formulating a disaster preparedness plan.

If you also want to know whether your plan is any good, the author provides an excellent list of 8 check boxes which you must be able to tick for a good, working plan. Your plan must be:

  1. Written
  2. Portable
  3. Accessible
  4. Practical, effective, and efficient
  5. Clear, concise, and simple
  6. Flexible and revisable
  7. Comprehensive and relevant
  8. Supported by management

The Disaster Preparedness Activity guide

The Disaster Preparedness Activity guide by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is a short 6-page PDF document that outlines a comprehensive approach to disaster preparedness for museums. It emphasizes the importance of having a well-conceived and familiar disaster plan as a critical risk management tool for protecting collections, staff, and visitors, as well as for recovering crucial business and operational records in the event of natural or man-made disasters. The document serves as an activity guide designed to assess a museum’s readiness to respond to emergency situations that affect collections, identify weaknesses in an existing disaster preparedness plan, or initiate the process of creating a plan.

This document may be used by institutions that do not have a plan yet as well as by those who do. In the case of those who do not yet have a plan, going through the role-playing exercise is intended to help the team identify where their main issues could lie in case of an emergency, and what kind of plan needs to be created. In the case of institutions with pre-existing plans, the exercise will be able to find the holes in the plan and identify areas for improvement.

Since this exercise recommends involving a cross-section of staff within the institution, it can help not only ensure a comprehensive understanding of what the implementation of a disaster response would entail, but it can also serve as a team building exercise, encouraging staff to meet each other and have conversations together. It would be much harder in an emergency to reach out to a colleague you’ve literally never talked to before!

Another excellent feature of this little guide is the Emergency Supply and Information Checklist. Not only does it provide a small list of the kinds of materials that should be available in case of an emergency, but it also asks important questions – during your exercise, did you actually have the materials at hand? Did everyone know where to find them? Was anything locked away or otherwise inaccessible? There’s certainly not much point in having emergency supplies if the person available at the time doesn’t know where they are, or can’t open the containers in which they are stored!

At the end, the document provides resources for further learning and improvement, such as the Museum Assessment Program (MAP), which helps museums strengthen operations, plan for the future, and meet national standards through self-study and peer review. It also recommends several publications and sample documents for museums looking to deepen their understanding of disaster planning and preparedness.

The FEMA Salvage Wheel

The FEMA salvage wheel was developed around 25 years ago, so it is probably the oldest resource on this list. The simple, yet innovative wheel provided concise, practical information for different types of heritage materials which may get damaged during an emergency event. It consisted of three rotating cardboard circles that displayed essential guidance when aligned to topics like “Salvage Priorities” or “Damage Assessment.” Similarly to the PReP™ resource above, this tool was (and still is) meant to be used on-the-ground during the first critical 48 hours after an emergency.

You may still purchase the original paper wheel from various heritage organizations if you would like to have a paper version that does not rely on your phone during an emergency. However, if it’s just easier to have a digital version, it is also available in digital format on the Apple app store. The Android version has been around for a few years, and it is due for updates (which FAIC has already announced), so it is not available for download at the moment. The Apple version was recently published for the first time (in May 2024) and can be downloaded here.

Disaster preparedness: more recommended reading


In examining disaster preparedness for museums and cultural heritage organizations, it becomes clear that the route to safeguarding artifacts, documents and buildings should be guided by strategic planning and foresight. We hope that the resources shared in this article will help collecting institutions today as we prepare to face both natural and man-made disasters.

Whether you already have a plan, or you have never made one before, remember that risk assessment and disaster preparedness are iterative processes. Your plan is never “finished”. Take the time to review your plan, or start one! If you are still feeling unsure, remember that your colleagues are also a great resource. Finding recommendations based on experience, support, as well as building strong relationships for future needs are just as important as writing out the plan. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your colleagues in the Conserv Community to ask for advice and resources!

If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with your peers or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.

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