May Day! Protecting the NFSA collection

From water, fire and natural disaster
 Robert Waterfall

Blue Shield Australia runs a regular awareness campaign on 1 May to highlight threats to heritage collections from natural disasters and armed conflicts and how to prepare for them.

Blue Shield Australia is a part of the International Committee of the Blue Shield that stems from the 1954 Hague Convention on Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict that declared the Blue Shield as the international symbol for marking protected sites. The Blue Shield is often called the Red Cross for cultural heritage.

Preparing for the worst
Disaster supplies held at the NFSA

At the NFSA disaster preparation is constantly on the minds of the staff at the collection storage facilities based around Canberra.

Storms, fires, pests and vandalism are all threats that we assess and plan for. The NFSA Collection Emergency Management Response and Recovery Plan is in place to ensure that everything can be done to prepare for threats against the collection. That includes making sure that everything is well maintained to prevent any incidents from happening in the first place.

Disaster response bins are placed around NFSA sites, much like collection first aid kits, to catch any water leaks and to have all of the supplies needed for quick response. We also meet with local fire brigades and show them what we store so we can minimise the potential damage caused by water if they need to respond to fires on our sites.

Learning from experiences and sharing
Aftermath of a fire testing exercise at the NFSA

The NFSA works closely with other Canberra institutions responsible for national and local collections to share information and resources. We regularly meet to discuss issues and ideas around dealing with disasters through the DISACT forum that includes the Australian War Memorial, National Library of Australia, National Archives of Australia and local Canberra museums and historical sites.

We are also learning lessons from trials such as the recent simulation of a worst-case scenario of fire in a storage vault. We found traditional storage methods of wood and cardboard provided better protection than plastics from a 500°C fire. The amount of water needed to put the fire out and how and where items were placed in the stores determined how likely they were to survive.

The NFSA also offers advice to the wider community on how to deal with disasters. This was especially the case during the devastating 2003 Canberra bush fires.

Expect the unexpected

Even with all our preparation and planning, unexpected events still make us realise how challenging it is to manage the unpredictable. A major chemical fire in the industrial suburbs of Canberra in September 2011 resulted in a large area being shut down by the police and fire services. This included storage facilities belonging to the NFSA and other major cultural institutions. Fortunately only some minor precautionary cleaning was required when we were able to re-enter the buildings, but this led to a review of surrounding businesses to see how likely this was to happen again.

Unpredictable events like this collapsing sink hole swallowing eight cars at the National Corvette Museum in Kentucky, USA in February 2014 remind us that we can’t be prepared for everything.

What are we doing for the Blue Shield MayDay?

At the NFSA we are reviewing our Collection Emergency Management Response and Recovery Plan and will be meeting with key staff to make sure that everyone knows what to do when disasters happen. The NFSA also undertakes an ongoing disaster response and recovery training program for staff.

The Blue Shield MayDay Campaign reminds us that it is a good time to look at any plan you might have, or even to start planning, regardless of whether you are an organisation or an individual with cherished possessions.