We at COSTEP MA invite you to join us for our blog series on writing – or updating – your disaster plan. Over the next month and a half, we will be posting tips and guidance each Tuesday on emergency management and disaster planning. The culmination of this series will be our live tabletop exercise (TTX) on September 22, 2020, at which you can put your completed disaster plan to the test! Not sure what a TTX is? Check out our post explaining the activity. All are welcome to join us for this disaster plan writing series, whether or not you are participating in the tabletop exercise. Mark your calendars for TTX Tuesdays!

It’s week four for TTX Tuesdays and the start of a 2-week emphasis on the topics of response and recovery. Now that we’ve covered the basics in understanding how emergencies relate to staff (through establishing emergency contact lists and staff roles during an emergency) and your buildings/environment (through risk assessment and prevention activities), let’s turn to focusing on collections.

When we refer to the concept of ‘response,’ we mean the process of reacting to and making decisions during an emergency in real time, whether that emergency is unfolding in front of you or whether you have just stumbled upon it after it has already been set in motion (for example, discovering a water leak on a Monday morning that began over the weekend while staff were away from the building). There is much to cover on this topic, so before moving on to the rest of this post be sure to read through COSTEP MA’s resources on response.

Let’s recap some basic steps to responding to an emergency, so that we can understand how to factor in this decision-making process to our disaster plans:

  1. Identify the scale of the emergency. Ask yourself,
    • Is this an emergency that is specific to your building?
    • If so, is it isolated to a certain area or is it a larger building-wide issue?
    • Are you encountering a larger regional disaster?
    • The first priority in responding to an emergency should be prioritizing the health and safety of anyone in the affected area. Determine who to contact, whether it’s staff, local first responders, or getting in touch with your local Emergency Management Director (EMD). Only once you have determined it is safe to do so should you turn to rescuing your collections.
  2. Contain and stop the damage. Remove collection objects away from the affected areas if it is safe to do so, utilizing your emergency supplies. 
  3. Isolate affected areas, establish a space to triage collections, and prepare for recovery. 
  4. Seek out professional help. For immediate collections assistance, you can call:
    • The National Heritage Responders at 1-202-661-8068
    • The Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) 24/7 hotline at 1-855-245-8303
    • For libraries and archives, the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) at 1-617-725-1860 extension 236
    • NEDCC has put together a comprehensive disaster assistance page that further explains who these groups are, how they can help you, and other resources to guide you through the act of responding to an emergency.

Even though the above steps provide a basic framework for response, there are many follow-up decisions that will need to be made on the fly when facing an emergency. For example, do you know what disaster supplies you have and where those are located? Where will you establish your triage space? This is where your disaster plan can really come in handy!

Taking steps 2 and 3 of the above guidance as examples, fill out the following in your disaster plan template:

  • An inventory of your disaster supplies, including location information
  • Information about designated locations for triaging collections  

NEDCC’s Worksheet for Outlining an Emergency Response Plan, for example, breaks down disaster supplies into life safety, facilities, collections response and recovery, and additional sources of emergency equipment and supplies. The worksheet also provides a section for designating drying station locations. Complete this information in the relevant sections in your plan.

Finally, let’s go over collections salvage priorities. During an emergency, you’ll need to make decisions regarding what collections objects to save first. Instead of wasting precious time during the emergency debating priorities, it can be helpful to have these decisions documented in advance in your disaster plan to guide you during response. Using NEDCC’s worksheet as our model, ask yourself the following questions when determining your salvage priorities:

  • Is the item critical for ongoing operations of the institution?
  • Can the item be replaced?
  • Would the cost of replacement be more or less than the cost of saving the object? (Replacement cost figures should include ordering, cataloging, shipping, etc. in addition to the purchase price.)
  • Is the item available in another format, or in another collection?
  • Is the item a high priority according to your mission statement or collection development policy?
  • Does the item require immediate attention because of its composition (coated paper, vellum, water-soluble inks)?

Document your decisions in your disaster plan by listing items and collections that should be salvaged first during an emergency, taking into consideration your institutional mission and needs. Some helpful approaches might be to think through your institution department by department, room by room, or even by top-level collection.

For example, the California Preservation Program disaster plan template breaks down salvage priorities for libraries into the following categories: collections, bibliographic records, administrative records, and other. In all cases, remember to include important administrative records for your organization that will assist in continuing operations if you do not have access to your building for extended periods of time.

Section from California Preservation Program disaster plan template on collection salvage priorities that has a table with headings: call number, location, size of collection, and special notes.
Section from California Preservation Program disaster plan template on salvage priorities

Also remember to factor in any digital records you may have into your emergency planning, including those important administrative records you need access to on a day-to-day basis. In general, one of the surest ways to avoid the loss of critical digital records is to implement regular back-ups on various types of storage media that are geographically distributed so as not to be affected by the same regional disaster. In an ideal world, we recommend supporting three copies of your records, each backed up.

At a minimum, it’s a good idea to have at least one back-up that is not in the same building as your institution. Check out this New York State Archives records advisory on Electronic Records Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for more information. Include your Information Technology (IT) personnel in your disaster planning conversations and make sure you have their contact information written down in your plan as well.

Wow! We covered a lot this week! Thanks for keeping up. We hope you’re as excited as we are to test out these plans in just a few weeks. Next week we’ll pick up this thread to go over salvage procedures for damaged collections, emergency procedures for your building and staff in general, and Continuity of Operations Plans as related to disaster plans.