Disaster Reality vs. ICS Structure

Rescuing Damaged Artifacts

Rescuing damaged artifacts at a recent workshop

When I was a young college senior majoring in music education, we had to take numerous philosophy and methods of education classes the semester before we began student teaching.  Every scenario presented in those courses was touted as the greatest achievement in public education since the eraser.  The difficulty was that once I began student teaching, armed with all of the beautiful templates of how to make every child a gifted learner and devoted scholar, I promptly fell flat on my face. Why did this happen? Because every situation presented to me in those ivy covered classrooms prior to my clash with the reality of public school systems, was delivered under the ideal circumstances, with the ideal students, who had been raised by the ideal parents and funded from the magical unlimited budgets of the state and local coffers. Since then, I have always been skeptical of anything presented as the” perfect solution” that was not grounded in real life experiences.

I encountered this delicate dance again in November when C2C presented a fire recovery workshop in Buncombe County, North Carolina. There is always a compromise in teaching this sort of disaster strategy between what is laid out in the formal, rigid structure of ICS (Incident Command System) and the bureaucracy of municipalities, and what needs to happen immediately.  Archivists, conservators, museum directors, librarians and any other staff can spend significant amounts of time on the disaster plan, telephone tree, duty assignments, and practice drills, only to see it all crumble when told that the city inspector gives you ten minutes to empty the facility before he chains off the door for safety reasons.

So why do we teach the complex system of ICS?  And why do we preach the importance of inventory updates, off-site storage of the disaster plan, electronic back up and how to care for the cracked dinnerware and fragile, sooty textiles?   Why does the workshop include ICS and not just emphasize urgent, immediate rescue?

We include it because we have a responsibility to the people in charge of these museums, historic homes and historic sites to prepare them in the best way possible – not if, but WHEN – a disaster happens on their watch at their site.

Granted, in an unexpected disaster, there is the sense of urgency and immediacy to rescue collections and protect all items from further damage or loss.  If everyone just runs helter-skelter, there may end up being more damage, confusion, theft and breakage than if there is a pre-thought-out and prepared plan.  Certainly, things will not go systematically in the perfect order with the perfect professional conservators on hand to give their wisdom and expertise, but being blind-sided by a fire, flood, tornado or mold infestation, is far worse when there is no organized course of action (or structure) to implement.

If there is a large presidential (FEMA) declared disaster, the ICS structure is implemented from the local community CERT volunteers and volunteer fire and EMT rescuers up the ladder to the governor.  It is paramount that you, as a professional, at least have an understanding of where you and your facility fall in that hierarchy, how and whom to inform of your needs and how that structure will affect your collections and facilities in the recovery effort. (Both the immediate and the long-term aspect of recovery.)

We know that there is a real life energy and sense of urgency surrounding a disaster and, also, that there is a textbook response to a disaster and we know that the best possible, most productive response lies somewhere in the middle.   We will keep listening to feedback, reworking the agenda, and re-structuring the workshops, practice burns, and artifact recovery until we have balanced the two opposing forces. Our reality is that we hope this is all wasted time on our part and your part.  We desperately hope that there is never any kind of trauma or disaster at your museum, historic site or home.  However, in the chance that if – and when – it does occur, all of the advance preparation will prove valuable in preserving these pieces of history for all future generations.

We will keep providing opportunities for you to have as much training as possible.  We are not the ivy-covered walls of college, nor do we want to set anyone up for failure. However, a pre-determined response that addresses the issues of administrative, logistical, operational and planning needs (that is implemented and carried out at a disaster site) will bring order to chaos. Being prepared is the best reality training possible.  Knowing your options and having a plan will help prevents panic and additional, smaller disasters from occurring at the site. All of this will help you manage a difficult situation in trying circumstances.

Remember that NC Department of Cultural Resources is always here with (free) conservators, archivists and specialists on hand to assist immediately after and in the long-term recovery.  CREST team members will respond from across the state and a local response will begin with the *ACREN groups.

Lyn Triplett

NC Department of Cultural Resources

Disaster Preparedness Coordinator


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on December 3, 2013, in collections care, collections management, Connecting to Collections, disaster preparedness, fire, workshops and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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