Saturday, 14 December 2013

Danger! Danger! High Water!

On Thursday I attended Harwell’s Effective Emergency Planning and Salvage training day.  I have never been on disaster recovery training and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  There was a relatively small group of us and the majority already had disaster plans but they were in need of an update.

Our sodden exercise

The lecture was sprinkled liberally with case studies of institutions which had done well and not so well with disaster recovery and had plans to a different degree.  A frightening number of incidents tend to happen outside of working hours or when the plan author is not at work.  This obviously flags up many problems of possibly a person totally unrelated to your library or archive having to dispense the plan and organise the salvage operation.  Instructions need to be clear, concise and up to date. 

There are many snagging areas, which would not have occurred to me:

  1. It is useful to have a line included in the plan concerning how much expenditure there can be without authorisation being required.  This authorisation can take a long time to clear and, when you are dealing with material lying in foul water, time is of the essence.  
  2. Also important are the contact details for the emergency team (who have pre-agreed to function as such) as well as any suppliers that you might have to call on (day or night).  
  3. Another aspect that I hadn’t considered was the necessity for a PR person to whom all press requests go.  This ensures that an agreed and coherent message is delivered to the public and enables business continuity to be upheld.  Social media can also play a part, even if this is run by a separate department.  In Queensland, the National Library of Australia staff ran social media and Gmail accounts for 5 weeks from their homes to maintain business continuity with the result that they never fully closed when their building and material were severely damaged by flood waters.
  4. The fire at the National Library of Wales highlighted the importance of having a 'clear desk' policy so that material can be identified by its location.  If there is a build-up of material on desks without a clear trace of where it has come from then it makes the salvage and assessment process far harder.

The plans that have worked the best in practice are ones that have a clear structure, priority listings of material, contact details and a calm and collected Emergency Response Team identified.  This team can be difficult to gather in a small institution where staff may be absent for any reason and deputising necessary.  At the National Theatre, we have a small archive team and may have to call on extra resources in the event of a widespread disaster.  Apparently reciprocal relationships with other archives as well as potential assessment areas (youth hostels, village halls etc.) are common for small institutions that do not have a lot of space to dry out or store damaged items.

Airing some valuable books

At the end of the day we were given a crate of sodden items ranging from LPs to books to photographs to microfilm to documents to CDs to negatives.  The box had been flooded.  It was up to us to decide what we could handle ‘in house’ and what we would send away to be frozen at Harwell’s to be dealt with at a later date.  It was tricky to make quick decisions about materials, especially when you tend to get caught up in badly damaged items, which would be better frozen than attempted to be dried in house.

I learned so much that I can’t possibly detail it all here but I will definitely be starting to have a look at our disaster plan since it will definitely be out of date (so many staff and supplier changes).  I will also have to start working with other departments and getting their input for potentially diverting phone lines, finding stop cocks, drafting press releases etc.  If I involve the departments on whom we would rely in a disaster then they will have a vested interest in the plan and be more knowledgeable and quick off the mark if ever the unfortunate were to happen.  I know it is a lot of work to carry out for something that might never happen but, really, how much can you afford to lose if you don’t write one?

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