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Session 8: Emergency Preparedness


preparing for disaster

1 Emergency Procedures

 If the fire alarm goes off in your building, do you know what to do? If you discover a water leak while working late one night, do you know who to call and how to respond? Advance preparation of emergency procedures, wide distribution of these procedures, and staff training in implementing them are crucial to disaster preparedness.

Basic Procedures

At a minimum, you will need to prepare the following procedures:

  • Building evacuation procedures: specify who is responsible for clearing each floor/area of the building and indicate where staff and visitors from each floor/area should gather outside.
  • Emergency call list: provide staff names and after hours phone numbers, with those who can respond most quickly listed first.
  • Basic water damage and fire response procedures (see sidebar for samples).

Visit the website of the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) to learn more about the Pocket Response Plan (PReP). PReP is a free download and customizable template that records your institution's emergency communication directory and emergency response checklist on one piece of legal-sized paper that can be folded to wallet size and easily carried by emergency response staff.

Additional Procedures

Emergency procedures can be prepared for many possible scenarios, including mold outbreak, terrorist attack, power outage, gas or oil leak, various natural disasters, etc. For disasters with advance warning (such as hurricanes, some types of flooding, and wildfires), you can also prepare a list of actions to take once a warning is received. In general, you should prepare procedures for those hazards you identified as the most serious during your risk assessment.

2 Supplies and Services

Who would you call if you had wet documents that needed to be dried? What is the after-hours number for the library's plumber? Who would you call if you needed computer data restored, or if you discovered a gas leak? You should gather phone numbers for essential services, as well as sources for necessary supplies and equipment, before disaster strikes. During the disaster planning process, assign someone to gather information about services and supplies, including their cost. Working with a disaster recovery contractor will be discussed in Working with a Vendor.

All disaster recovery information must be easily accessible and kept up to date. Those on the disaster response team should be able to access this information online and, ideally, have a copy at home.

Basic Services

At a minimum, include telephone numbers and after-hours contact information for:

  • Fire department
  • Police department
  • Ambulance
  • Security company (or in-house security)
  • Insurance company
  • Electrician
  • Plumber
  • Heating and cooling service company
  • Utility companies
  • Conservation/preservation assistance
  • Local freezer facility (where wet collections can be frozen quickly until they can be transferred to a vacuum freeze drying service)
  • Vacuum freeze drying service
  • Any other crucial services

Additional Services

In the event that your building is inaccessible for some time, you may want to arrange for alternate locations to which phone service, telecommunications, and/or computer operations could be moved, so that your institution can continue to operate while collections and the building are salvaged. Depending on the scope of your collections, other services that might be needed include microfilm salvage, videotape salvage, and/or computer media recovery.


It is a good idea to keep a limited number of supplies on hand for immediate response to minor water emergencies. A separate list should be kept with names and numbers for sources of additional supplies. See the sidebar for a sample checklist of basic emergency supplies.

3 Insurance

Is your institution insured against damage to your building and collections? Do you know how to file a claim? Do you know what procedures you must follow in the event of a disaster (e.g., are you allowed to begin salvaging damaged collections before the insurance adjuster arrives)? Insurance is a complex subject and can be very confusing. It is very important that you consult with your insurance agent to determine precisely what coverage is right for your institution.

Types of Insurance

An institution can be self-insured, purchase commercial insurance, or have a combination of the two. Self-insurance refers to the practice of putting funds aside within the institution to be used in case of loss. Some larger institutions or those that are part of a larger entity (e.g. a university or a government agency) choose self-insurance or a combination of commercial and self-insurance. Commercial insurance is more common for smaller institutions that do not have the resources to allow for self-insurance.

Materials Covered

Different collection materials may need different types of insurance coverage. In libraries, special collections are often covered by a Valuable Papers and Records policy that is separate from the policy for general collections. Do not neglect insurance for your building, machinery, and equipment (e.g., furnishings, photocopiers, microfilm readers). Sometimes a separate rider is needed to cover replacement of computer hardware and software. You should also consider business interruption and extra expense insurance; these cover loss of income and extra expenses that may be incurred while providing services during the period of repair and restoration after a disaster.

Regardless of the materials covered or the method of insurance coverage, your institution must:

  • Establish the value of the item(s) to be insured,
  • Decide on the appropriate type of coverage, and
  • Establish the procedures and documentation that will be required in the event of damage or loss.

4 Prioritizing Materials for Salvage

Imagine that you are confronted with damp and soaked collections due to damage to your building from high winds and heavy rains. Which collections will be your highest priority? Setting salvage priorities is one of the most difficult tasks within disaster planning and recovery. To prevent delay and disagreements among staff during a crisis, it is best to identify high priority holdings in advance of an emergency.

Prioritizing by Type of Collection

High priority materials will vary from institution to institution. However, all organizations must give priority to vital records (e.g., accounts payable, payroll and personnel records, legal documents). Without these materials, it may be difficult to restart operations in a timely manner. Don't forget to include computer data in your salvage priorities. Data salvage priority should go to information that is not backed up at all and does not have offsite backups.

Following are types of collections that may be high priority:

  • Materials that support your institution's primary mission
  • Unique collections
  • Heavily used collections
  • Collections with legal retention requirements
  • Collections that are difficult or expensive to replace
  • Collections with scholarly research value
  • Collections with monetary or artifactual value
  • Formats that are particularly vulnerable to damage (e.g., leather bindings)
  • Materials on loan

Methods for Setting Priorities

As a first step, set priorities by department or by sections of the collections. Since it is most likely that an emergency will affect only a portion of the collections, these priorities can serve as a basis for setting overall collection salvage priorities for the institution. This should be done by a committee made up of representatives from each department and/or area of the collections.

If your institution has an up-to-date collection development policy or retention/disposition schedules (in the case of archivists and records managers), use them to help determine which collections are most important. As a general rule, do not to try to set salvage priorities on an item-by-item basis. While there may be the occasional object of value that deserves to be considered on its own, it is much more practical to designate groups of items for salvage.

A color-coded map can be used to identify the location of high priority items (although this information must be protected to avoid creating a "shopping list" for thieves). Collection priorities should be shared with the fire department prior to an emergency.

Rethinking Priorities During a Disaster

During a disaster you may find that some collections are beyond salvage, particularly if they have spent significant time in adverse conditions. Exposure to fire can damage some formats (such as negatives and microfilm) so that salvage is impossible. Materials that have been wet for a long time may also be too badly damaged. If books with coated paper have been wet and begun to dry, their pages may block together, making them unsalvageable. In cases like this, you will have to move on to the next priority collection and concentrate on those materials that can be successfully salvaged.


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