45th Annual Meeting – Workshop, May 29, “Building Emergency Response Skills”

Three veteran National Heritage Responders delivered an emotional and highly persuasive workshop (abstract) during this year’s AIC Annual Meeting.  Susan Duhl, Bob Herskovitz and Ann Frellsen, having spent many hours of hard labor together in the field during disaster response, spoke seamlessly as a complementary team, not completing each other’s sentences, but oftentimes each other’s thoughts.  They mentioned having lived together in an RV in Louisiana, smelly and tired…and clearly they have cleaned up their act and can take this show on the road.

As an active collections emergency responder for a large academic library institution, here are my key takeaways:

When responding to a disaster, we need to get to know local government agents, whose word is law and yet whose language is foreign to most conservators.  We can prepare for this by taking the FEMA Incident Command training, which introduces the vocabulary and the hierarchy of the world of the First Responders.  What we’ll get out of it is the ability to communicate with others and to understand our roles.  By the way, conservators are NOT First Responders…that term is reserved for the fire, police, National Guard and other official personnel whose priority is human safety.

Personal health has to be our #1 priority, because we’re no good to anyone if we’re injured or sick.  When there’s no electricity, there’s no Nilfisk, no fume hood, no suction disk, no light table…so we are going to McGyver our way through this thing with all our appropriate PPE on at all times.  Fresh air and sunlight go a long way when the alternative is standing in the dark, knee-deep in “mud.”  (I put that in quotes because the components of disaster area mud should be assumed to be everything you don’t ever want to ingest.)

Mental health of those around you is going to be a bigger concern than you expect or, indeed, want.  You can provide the sympathetic shoulder, the gentle persuasion to take a break, or even the diplomatic persuasion to a leader to move sideways and let someone else shoulder that burden for a while.  It can be hard to wrap one’s mind around saving cultural heritage when people around you have lost homes and loved ones, but in fact our role in rescuing their patrimony contributes to their healing.

Conservators with a bit of grit can survive and, in fact, thrive, in the extreme environment of disaster response.  We have to “think outside the lab,” and get creative to make the best use of what is available.  To take on leadership roles in a disaster response we have to stay calm and focused, and accept that we are surrounded by confusion.  We may be the only ones on site who know how to assess what is possible and what is practical. But we also tend to become superheroes and work to long and too hard.  I am really grateful for the specific language the instructors modeled for how to remove an Incident Commander (let’s get used to that ICS term for team leader) whose energy if not competence is flagging. “How are you doing?  You’re doing such a great job!  I notice you’re looking a little tired.  You’ve been working really hard.  What we really need right now is someone to sit down over here and fill out this inventory…can you help out with that?  One of us can hold the radio for a little while.”  You can’t just kick them out…instead, move them sideways, and then they’ll see that everything is going to be ok, and they can take a real break without feeling like they’ve abandoned their responsibility.

Our fearless leaders gave a lot of good tips and tricks.  Here is a sampling:

  • A Uhaul makes a decent workspace during the day and secure storage at night.
  • Don’t touch sooty things…any contact embeds the soot.
  • Fire extinguisher powder is corrosive and in a damp environment (i.e. from putting out the fire) it can become intractable.
  • Got earthquake?…Bring Ziplocs to keep the parts together.
  • Just say no to the “natural oils” used by some vendors for deodorizing; zeolytes work well, and charcoal is ok. Ozone oxidizes collections as well as odors, and should be avoided.
  • Also say no to vacuum thermal drying.
  • Don’t pump out a basement until the floodwaters have receded, or the hydrostatic pressure from the outside water could collapse the foundation.
  • Need weights?  Try double-Ziplock-bagged water, which conforms well to 3D surfaces.
  • Document anything that is being discarded so insurance will pay for it.
  • The answer to the question “How much mold is there?” is: “Yes.”

Want to be a part of this action?  Well, some of the National Heritage Responders are nearing retirement, so new recruits will be needed.  You need training first, and experience second.  Take FEMA’s ICS 100.b online training.  Watch Tara Kennedy’s Facebook Live recording on working with disaster recovery vendors.  Go to your regional Alliance For Response group (might be under a different name…ask the AIC Office) to join up with a local training opportunity.  And get to know the National Heritage Responders in your area…let them know you’re willing and able to respond.

Thank you to this team of veterans who have saved so many collections, and are now sharing what they know to give us all the tools to respond effectively.

P. S. I also attended the National Heritage Responders meeting after the workshop, and witnessed the official retirement announcement for Bob Herskovitz.  He’s retiring to his boat, so the group gave him a life preserver emblazoned with the name of his boat, “Ça Va Encore Bien.”