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Emergency Response during Covid-19: What impact will the pandemic have on emergency plans and salvage within the heritage industry?


The Covid-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on the heritage sector and constitutes an emergency situation itself, however during this crisis museums and historic houses remain vulnerable to emergencies and incidents. Emergency plans are already designed to manage complex health and safety risks such as hazards in collections, asbestos and contaminated water so we already have the necessary skills and experience to manage this new threat using the latest information and risk management process. Below we have considered some of the new challenges posed by the pandemic and possible methods to adapt emergency procedures and prepare responses for a major or minor incident. This is by no means a "how to" guide but some considerations to help manage new risks in response to the pandemic.

Risk assessment and resource management

During lockdown the importance of conservators, collections managers and curators as guardians of heritage has been highlighted and the heritage sector identified these roles as necessary to the core functions of heritage organisations. While checking stores and galleries, many might be reconsidering priorities in light of reduced funds and staff. What would justify mobilising a salvage response during a pandemic; what type of emergency, which locations and what collections? A salvage manager's decision in an emergency can't always be planned as the variables of an incident are too great, but it can be informed and measured.

Demonstrating that we use scarce resources efficiently is the backbone of running any department or organisation, and is more important now more than ever. Heritage professionals often use risk assessments to identify priorities for a collection to justify resource use. In the context of a salvage response, identifying potential threats to a collection in a risk assessment gives the decision maker enough knowledge to decide when an incident is major or minor, and how to respond. Updating existing knowledge of stores and collections such as whether a store has internal/external water sources, if a store contains combustible material or if collections are lifted off the floor, will help a salvage manager assess the risk to the collection when a real threat occurs. Knowledge of your institution such as access space between shelving in a store or gallery or different materials in collections will impact working methods during salvage including social distancing, handling and cleaning.

Sometimes there are multiple threats in an emergency, so assessing severity and likelihood can help judge the level of risk to the collection. For example the same ingress of water to one collection store may not have as a severe impact as another. This may be based on a collection's material, how it's been stored/displayed or its significance. Likelihood focuses on a user's knowledge and previous experience, for example if an area of the building has frequently sustained damage during heavy rain or high winds the likelihood of recurrence increases.

Combining threat and likelihood gives a salvage manager the means to make an informed decision, which is vital during a time of limited resources. How this works in reality will differ from organisation to organisation, some might use simple risk assessment forms others may use spreadsheets to assess standards and identify risks. Some won't take a formal approach but will use this information in a dynamic assessment on site during an incident. Whichever method is chosen the salvage manager still requires knowledge of threat, severity and likelihood in advance of the incident.

Collection risk is important but health and safety, physical and mental, remain essential. When mobilising a salvage response risk assessments for people as well as collections are required and will always take priority. This assessment is likely to follow the same model of identifying threat, severity and likelihood. Most threats or hazards will be familiar, but now we have a new hazard to include and its impact to our response should be considered. Before the Covid-19 pandemic an effective response to salvage might have resulted in bringing many people together into one location at the same time, to diffuse an incident and reduce the risk to the collection as much and as quickly as possible. During a Covid-19 outbreak this type of response could be difficult if you also need to follow social distancing and increased hygiene, salvage managers may decide not to call colleagues in and could use local volunteers or salvage teams from nearby institutions. Looking at health and safety risks in a similar way to collections risks suggests we need better knowledge of this new threat, including its severity and likelihood in order to effectively consider and manage the risk during an incident.

So how do these assessments affect how we manage our resources during the Covid-19 pandemic? Risk assessment tools relating to collections and colleague health and safety may highlight the need for resource prioritisation. For example, if you were only able to call a small number of people onto site to help how would you choose who you called? Does the contents of our salvage kits need to change if we need more PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) or if we need to focus more on protecting in situ rather than manual handling? Can your recovery area be modified to comply with restrictions, or will you need to look for a more suitable option?

Adapting resources based on these risk assessments will make us more prepared for an incident. It could also make us more resilient for the future, by forcing us to look at adapting plans and training for salvage teams to accommodate Covid-19.

Working with government guidelines

Preparing an emergency response in line with changing government guidelines has been challenging for many organisations and demands a rethinking of current working practices. Below we have tried to flag some issues that may be useful to consider when trying to adapt an emergency plan however we realise every institution will have its own procedures and concerns.

It will be vital to stay abreast of the latest legislation and health and safety guidance to update emergency and salvage response. Gathering as much information as possible before proceeding is essential for a safe and effective response. Using this data in risk assessments will make decision making safe, quick and efficient in an emergency. Icon, Museums Association, AIM, CIPD, Collections Trust and other organisations such as DHSC, WHO and HSE are providing guidelines - links can be found via the Icon Coronavirus resource hub. Though many adjustments will need to be made, one of the strengths of emergency preparedness training and planning is that flexible working is often built into the plan to allow for reactive decision making, as such emergency plans need not be completely re-written but can be adapted with new procedures to manage new risks posed by Covid-19.

Continued in Part 2: 

Emergency Response during Covid-19: What changes should we be making to our Emergency preparation and response plans?

Article written by: Sophia Oelman and Sadie Wilson

Image: Creative Commons


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