JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 13 (pp. to )
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC , Volume 39, Number 1, Article 13 (pp. to )


STEPHANIE WATKINS, & Chinese proverb


“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”


FEMA's model is easily adaptable to meet the training needs of many diverse types of organizations as well as conservation specialties. Those persons charged with developing a preparedness plan would benefit from adapting FEMA's terms and definitions, as the language of the emergency management profession is very specific. For example, the terms “disaster” and “emergency” are used by conservators, sometimes interchangeably, to indicate catastrophic destruction of information and artifacts, often within a limited time frame. To FEMA, “emergency” means a single-entity situation. “Disaster” means a multilevel or multijurisdictional situation. The president of the United States can declare an area a “disaster,” whereas many areas have “emergency” situations.

The following sections provide practical advice and formats for implementing a FEMA training model. The suggestions were compiled from training materials, conversations with community and training organizers, and personal experience. The ideas are given to help others develop and implement programs of their own.


Orientation can begin as a roundtable discussion or as a one-on-one on-site meeting. Objects conservator Barbara Roberts has used a simple ruse designed to capture the attention of participants when teaching preparedness concepts. It begins with someone turning out the lights. While participants are in the dark, they are asked to think about this sudden situation. Where are they? What might have just happened to cause the lights to go out? What are they thinking and feeling? How will they get out? Do they know where the exits are? What is the type of building structure? Is there a false ceiling that might crash down? Where is the emergency equipment? Will they be thinking of the safety of loved ones such as a spouse, children, or parents?

The concept of preparedness is introduced after the participants evaluate the initial simulated emergency situation. Participants can identify the possible situations, such as earthquake or flood, that might occur to their collection or institution. The meeting should end with some ideas of simple preparedness measures the participants can take to continue interest in the program. For example, participants can attach a small flashlight to their work keys. They can be reminded to store insurance policies off-site, to back up their computer systems frequently, on a daily or weekly schedule, to review their preparedness plans, and to start identifying emergency supplies, local suppliers, and other resources.


Drill exercises should be developed for each type of material that needs to be saved, such as paintings, papers, books, or photographs. For example, procedures for air-drying or packing materials for freeze-drying might be taught through separate drill exercises. Participants are shown what to do; then they are given time to practice the procedure demonstrated. Original materials do not need to be used for the drill exercise, as it is the action of recovery that is being taught. However, for participant familiarity during drills, donations of personal materials from staff members, items destined for destruction, and deaccessioned items can also be used. Noncollection and duplicate materials can be dry or altered (e.g., wetted or burned) as needed to teach skills.


Tabletop exercises consist of sample situations that can be conducted on paper while the participants are gathered in a room, often around a table. The region, type of emergency or possible disaster event, and type and size of collection determine the scenario to be tested in a tabletop exercise. For example, this exercise format can be used to test the emergency response plan for a localized fire, a burst water pipe, or the backup of a nearby sewer into the collections storage area. Quick responses can be encouraged. The exercise helps participants understand what level of involvement is appropriate, whether consultant advice or staff recovery action, for situations they are likely to encounter. The play helps participants determine where their responsibility begins and ends and highlights that cooperation is necessary to complete the task.

Keeping participant groups small and assigning each person a role such as director, building manager, conservator, administrative assistant, reporter, city planner, or fire chief or marshal can help focus the exercise. The hypothetical situation should develop with message notes given by the “simulators” to appropriate role players. For example, the administrative assistant can be given one message that reads “complaint of foul smell on first floor” while the building manager receives another message that reads “blueprints for basement requested.” Discussion among other crew members can proceed before participants decide on a course of action.


The functional exercise can test limited aspects of a plan, such as response procedures and response times for implementing a few specified recovery procedures that were already drilled. As with a tabletop scenario, the message notes for the hypothetical situations are given out in real-time intervals by the simulators, observed by evaluators, and timed and monitored by controllers. Unlike the tabletop exercises, functional exercises are a physical walk-through of action and responses. During this exercise, resources can be limited as they might be in real situations. For example, one message can read that the flat files are swollen shut. Will the crew decide to remove these materials or not? If so, will they know where to go for the appropriate tools? If the tool kit does not hold the necessary tools, how will the participants react?

Developing a functional exercise will highlight the needs of personnel engaged in recovery. Limitations of seats, toilets, and drinking water in the area can become apparent. Considerations can be generated by the following questions: If the exercise will take place outside, is it pollen season? Who among the crew has allergies? What are the age and fitness of the participants? Are some of the participants on special diets, or do they have medical conditions such as diabetes, bad backs, or heel spurs? A good plan can allow for breaks and special needs. Participants should be provided in advance with information on what they can expect and might need to bring with them for their comfort during the exercise.


Numerous events or aspects of a plan can be tested during a full-scale exercise, and the exercise can be as realistic as possible. For example, a sample scenario can be a fire engulfing an entire collection during the rainy season. As with the tabletop and functional exercises, simulators give participants the events of the full-scale hypothetical situation in message notes, and these can be relayed via familiar communications means such as the telephone. Participants can be equipped with supplies and functioning gear. Wet or burned materials can be incorporated into the exercise. Like functional exercises, much care and planning will be necessary to test the procedures of a recovery plan. Multiple evaluators will be necessary to observe the play. Controllers should allow the exercise to develop but keep a close watch on the results to stay within time constraints and to avoid mishaps.