44th Annual Meeting, General Session (GO – Emergency Response), May 16, “The Emergency Response Team at the Centre de conservation du Québec” by Eloïse Paquette

The Centre de conservation du Québec (CCQ), in Québec city, is a unique institution. Founded by the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications in 1979, its mandate is to protect and preserve Quebec’s cultural heritage and to make sure that this valuable heritage is recognized as such, and made as widely available as possible. The CCQ, which provides a variety of services (ranging from restoration to raising awareness about conservation issues and to emergency response), employs thirty conservators. One of these professionals, Éloïse Paquette, Paintings Conservator at the Centre, was at the joint 44th annual meeting and 42nd annual conference on May 16 to let us in on the secrets of the CCQ’s well-rounded Emergency Response Team. I had been looking forward to this talk: as a Quebecoise, and an aspiring conservator, this was a valuable occasion to get to know the workings of the CCQ, as well as how prepared they are to face disasters that threaten cultural heritage in the Belle Province. What I found out is that the members of the Emergency Response Team of the CCQ are, as Paquette pointed out, as ready as they can be.
The ice storm of January 1998, which paralyzed the Montreal region, acted as a catalyst for the coming into being of an official Emergency Response Team at the CCQ. The crise du verglas, as it is known in Quebec, caused massive power outage. At the Lachine Museum, 10 km from downtown Montreal, leaks appeared from previously frozen pipes when the power came back on, and the storage area was flooded with hot, dirty water, critically damaging the Museum’s collections. The CCQ was called for help, and three conservators were on site two days later. 254 of the affected objects demanded immediate care: the exhibition space of the museum was turned into examination rooms, many textiles were dried or frozen on site, and others were washed then and there. 87% of the textiles were saved, and half of them can be displayed today. Some of the textiles, paintings, works on paper, ethnological objects and furniture were restored in the following years.
This disaster prompted the Lachine Museum to revise its storage space (they installed a gas heating system and revised the classification of the objects) and the CCQ to put into place a more detailed and comprehensive emergency plan. Paquette explained to the audience what this plan is, and, most importantly, how good organization and communication make it an effective one. The CCQ’s Emergency Plan, which is revised and put up to date during regular meetings, relies on cooperation between team members as well as with other institutions and museum employees. The CCQ has agreements with the Musées de la civilisation and the Musée National des Beaux-Arts in Quebec City, as well as with Centre des services du Québec – Parcs Canada.
The first aspect of the Emergency Plan which Paquette unveiled was the Telephone Pyramid, a diagram in which a network of names and phone numbers are linked one to the other, in such a way that when a member of the team receives a call telling them about an emergency, they know exactly which other members to call. Hence, everyone is quickly in the know and ready to act. Like every other document related to the Emergency Plan, this Pyramid is available in a binder at CCQ, and every team member has a copy at home. The Pyramid was also printed in credit card format, so that it is carried around at all times (as Paquette pointed out, she had her copy in her wallet during the talk). This goes to prove what is seemingly obvious, but can never be stressed enough: communication is key for efficient emergency response.
The members of the emergency team also own a pocket-size summary of the plan. In the Emergency Plan, nothing is left to chance: the sequence of events is detailed, designated facilities are pointed out, the responsibilities of each team member is exposed, contact information for CCQ’s partners in case of disaster is listed, floor plans of institutions and museums are provided, etc. The document is made complete by a few annexes, the first of which being “Salvage Material Lists.” The materials of the Emergency Response Team, which are regularly inspected, are housed together in a secure area at the Centre, in well identified boxes. On each box is taped a list of the material it contains. The materials are visible, easily accessible, and very well organized. At the end of the talk, an attendee asked Paquette, who had provided us with an example of the list of materials contained in two of the boxes (box #1: aluminum paper, waxed paper, Ziploc bags, plastic fasteners, garbage bags, polythene, and box #4: security helmets, first aid kit, security glasses, dust masks, disposable gloves, dishwashing gloves, latex gloves), what they used aluminum paper for. Paquette stated that most of the materials have no specific, set use. Instead, they are to be brought on site just in case they are needed. This whole organization of the material makes for a quick and efficient disaster response.
The emergency plan has been put to the test a few times since its inception. Paquette told the audience about two disasters that – as someone who grew up in Quebec City – I remember vividly: the burning of the Quebec’s Armoury (2008), and the fire at the Musée de la civilisation de Québec (2014).
The Voltigeurs de Québec Armoury, a Gothic Revival drill hall, was built in the later part of the 19th century. As Paquette pointed out, on top of its historical significance, the manège militaire (as it is known in Quebec) also had architectural value: it was the largest wooden structure in America without columns. Iqn the night of April 4th, 2008, as the whole of Quebec City was still preparing for the celebration of the city’s 400th birthday, the Armoury, which was to have been one of the venues of the festivities, burned to the ground. As Paquette pointed out, the building was completely lost, except for the façade and the Voltigeurs de Quebec’s Museum, located to the left of the building. Several conservators were called on site on April 5th and tried to carry out the drying of archives and paper on site, until the federal government took over the conservation of the artifacts. 90% of the collection, which was mostly archives, was saved, and the museum was relocated.
Six years later, in 2014, an electrical fire broke out on the second floor of the Musée de la civilisation de Québec. Two exhibition rooms were flooded. In the first exhibition, one that contained about 300 First Nations artifacts, the objects were quickly protected and sustained minimal damage. The second exhibition was composed of Pierre Gauvreau’s paintings, which were rapidly covered with polythene to prevent ashes from settling on the surface, since there was no more storage space available. Except for the floors of the rooms, which had to be replaced, everything remained in good condition.
After the fire at the Museum, the CCQ’s Emergency Response Team went over their performance and commented on everything that went right, and everything that went wrong. Paquette concluded her talk by sharing some of the conclusions they drew from this exercise: everyone should have a cellphone and be in constant communication during transportation and intervention; a police escort should be demanded by the team in order to avoid traffic; frontal lamps are a must; the basic needs of the team need to be taken care of; it is necessary to monitor what other people are doing on the site (for example, cleaning company employees will sometimes use products that are dangerous for the collections); and the team (and their material) should be identified. Paquette showed the blue vest that the members of the Emergency Response Team wear when they work on the site of a disaster, which makes them recognizable but also distinguishes them from firefighters and other professionals.
What really makes the Emergency Response Team at the Centre de Conservation du Québec shine is the emphasis that is put throughout their emergency plan on good communication and obsessive organization. With the material always ready to be packed in a car and brought on site, and everyone easily reachable on their phones, it seems like this team could serve as an example for other institutions that have not yet fully embarked on the emergency preparedness train. In this regard, I would like to suggest that it might be worth considering for the CCQ to make the entirety of their emergency plan publicly available. All of their hard work and planning could greatly benefit conservation professionals all over the world.