Emergency Plan for Collections


For an institution to respond safely and quickly in the event of an emergency, a plan must already be in place. There are numerous resources available online to aid cultural institutions small and large in developing a plan. In some cases, however, the scale and type of materials held by natural science museums require some additional thought and planning in adapting these resources. Good communication, training, collaboration and development of strategic partnerships within various departments in large institutions, as well as with with local first responders, neighboring institutions, preservation providers and other organizations nationally and internationally are essential in establishing a framework for the support and assistance in the aftermath of an emergency.   

Emergency Preparation can be divided into two main phases: Risk Assessment and Emergency Response Planning. Conducting a risk assessment of the facility and collections points out areas of highest vulnerability and provides direction for mitigation measures. Results and data from the risk assessment will also inform the disaster plan by identifying high priority collections and establishing an baseline inventory in the event of a disaster. More details on the AMNH Risk Management Program can be found here [link to page]

Read on for information regarding the key components of an AMNH emergency response plan. 

Emergency Planning at AMNH

In 2004 the AMNH hosted the 19th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) entitled Museum SOS: Strategies for Emergency Response and Salvage as well as a corresponding one-day workshop Don’t Panic: Emergency Response & Salvage. These resources provide a good starting point for institutions beginning to develop an emergency response plan.  

Spearheaded by the Natural Sciences Collections Conservation Lab, AMNH staff within Collections, Security, Facilities Operations and Operational Planning departments have begun to clearly communicate their needs, expectations, constraints and limitations in dealing with an emergency situation. Externally, the AMNH has worked with other organizations and agencies such as the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to understand the severity of rare and catastrophic risks. Many partnerships both internal and external are being established or strengthened in ways that will improve the long-term preservation of collections. Additionally AMNH is an active participant in NYC’s Alliance for Response. View the AMNH presentation Bridge Building 101: Partnerships for Collection Risk Management.

Creating a Collections Emergency Response Plan requires a coordinated planning effort; the plan acts to formalize the institutions commitment to emergency preparedness.  The main components of an AMNH Collections Emergency Response Plan include:

  • Contact List - identifies the Emergency Response team with phone numbers and email. An accompanying document outlines roles and defines responsibilities (see below).
  • Inventory and List of Prioritized Collections – informed by the risk assessment, a collections inventory (complete with locations) and priority list will identify and locate rare or vulnerable items (such as type specimens, or field notes) as well as potentially hazardous items (such as specimens treated with heavy metals or other pesticides, radioactive minerals, or alcohol collections).
  • List of materials and supplies – as a reference, a content list for AMNH Response Carts and Go Bags can be found here [link to download]
  • Identification of Backup Storage and/or triage areas
  • Identification of potential vendors – For information on working with a recovery vendor [link to page]
  • Procedures - for evacuation, responding to various types of emergencies, and salvaging artifacts. For details of specific collections salvage techniques, visit the salvage pages of this site [link to page]
  • Training schedule – regularly scheduled training workshops help to ensure continuity of information in the case of staff changes.

Designating Emergency Response Roles

A well-crafted emergency plan will not only have a comprehensive phone tree and list of resources, it will have a response team structure with well-defined roles.  The roles give staff specific duties in the event of an emergency.  With the duties of each role predetermined and practiced, staff can work efficiently with each other and avoid duplication of efforts right from the beginning of the event.

In the event of an emergency, the AMNH has an established reporting structure for the Science divisions. The Emergency Response Manager is a member of Security, and leads the response efforts.

During a series of on-site workshops focused on emergency response in 2008, the AMNH staff determined the following four groups directly responsible for coordinating the response and salvage phases of an event.

  • Operations Group — This group is composed of a Security Manager (acts as the Emergency Response Manager), Custodial Manager, and a Health and Safety Officer.  The group is responsible for ensuring that the area is safe to enter and free from danger.  The group is also responsible for cleaning the affected area, ensuring any infrastructural issues have been resolved and limiting access to an area if necessary.  This is the group that maintains contact up and down the command chain (especially above the chain to museum administrations, etc.) and makes the decisions about re-entry.
  • Collection Managers Group — The Collection Manager Group is responsible for collections from all the disciplines as well as archives, and includes the role of Recovery Team Leader (RTL).  The RTL will work closely with the Operations Group and will report to the Emergency Response Manager regarding planning/response and salvage efforts.   The RTL will also work with the appropriate Conservator and the Registrar on the planning, documenting and salvage phases of the effort.   
  • Conservator Group — The conservators will work closely with the Recovery Team Leader and the Registrar to prioritize the salvage effort and identify what supplies/duties the effort will require. 
  • Registrar Group — Members of the registrars group are responsible for tracking collections if moved, contacting the appropriate insurance companies and inventorying collections and loans.  The registrars will also act as the overall coordinators for documentation ensuring that the event is properly documented following insurance/museum requirements.

Salvage Organization

Recovery teams are comprised of all critical staff in the department that will have responsibility during an event. The Response Team will be deployed at the request of the Recovery Team Leader.

The Recovery Team Leader will come from the Collections Management Group and is in charge of the team. He/she has overall responsibility for the execution of the emergency response plan in a disaster, and works to keep the team focused and clearly explain the tasks at hand. During a disaster, the Response Team Leader is responsible for:

  • The welfare of his/her team members and communicating the needs of the team to the Emergency Response Manager.
  • Acting as liaison between Curator in Charge and the Recovery Team, as well as Security & Facilities.
  • Guiding assessment and salvage efforts.

The Recovery team comes from the Registar, Conservation, Operations, and Collections Manager groups and are responsible for:

  • Making themselves available to receive instructions from the Recovery Team Leader and executing the recovery plan;
  • Informing the Recovery Team Leader of their task status, and any problems or issues in executing the plan

Roles within the Recovery Team includeRecorder, aTriage person, and one or moreTransportersandDryer/Packers. 

  • The Recorder - will come from the Registrar Group.  The recorder will be in charge of the written and photographic documentation associated with the salvage of the collections.  This will include a comprehensive inventory of the items removed and notations as to where the artifacts were moved and how they were to be treated.
  • The Triage person- will come from the Conservation Group.  The triage person will determine whether the artifacts can be salvaged, the method of salvage as well as the drying protocol if appropriate.
  • Transporter(s)- will come from the Operations Group.  The transporter will carry the artifacts whether damaged or not to the predetermined salvage area.
  • Dryer/Packer(s)- will come from the Collections Managers Group.  The dryer/packers will work in the salvage area and either lay out artifacts to air dry or pack them up for removal from the site for storage or for transport to a freeze drying facility.

As the salvage progresses, the Recovery Team Leader may request additional people for any of the above mentioned categories.  Possible scenarios for this include:

  • Having an additional Recorder assist as the job of recording the collections is often the slowest step in the process. 
  • Adding Transporters to help handle drawers if the collections are going to stay inside  for transport. 

More details regarding the Response and Salvage phase can be found here on other pages in this section of the site. link to page]