Basics of Disaster Planning

Huge storms last week, right?  Don’t be caught off-guard again.  Protect yourself, your visitors, and your museum with a disaster preparedness plan.

Preparing for Disaster

Disaster can strike at any moment and although each situation is unique, museums can be better prepared if they plan carefully before an unforeseen misfortune.  By creating a “disaster preparedness plan” organizations can put emergency procedures into action whenever they may be needed.  By taking a proactive rather than reactive approach, museums help protect their collections, their staff, and their visitors.

A disaster preparedness plan is a series of written policies that outline the museum’s procedures for preventing or minimizing damage that results from manmade or natural disasters.  As you start to develop your disaster plan, think about how a disaster could affect both human and physical resources and what would be needed to help your museum recover.

Anatomy of a Disaster Preparedness Plan:

-Create an introduction to the plan that explains how the plan is organized, where it is stored, and how often it should be updated.

-Consult with you insurance agent about precautions that can be taken for disasters impacting your museum.  Obtain an evaluation of how the building may be vulnerable to disaster.  Identify the disasters which are likely to occur, such as fire, flood, tornado, earthquake, or water leak.

-Anticipate a crisis by designating a Crisis Management Team.  Appoint one person to head this committee who will be in charge when the disaster strikes.  Then, set up a chain of command in case team members are absent.  This team must be formally established in writing and should include call-up lists and other means of communications that can be maintained during a disaster.

-Develop a warning system for visitors and staff for if a crisis were to occur.

-Prepare volunteers and employees by providing training in the use of fire extinguishers and general fire protection.

-Develop relationships with conservation specialists to help identify museum items that require special protection from likely emergencies.

-Identify off-site locations for museum collections to be relocated to after a disaster and determine a plan for actually handling and moving objects.

-Install emergency lights that will turn on if the power is out.

-Keep emergency supplies in an obvious area of your museum.  Supplies should include: flashlights with extra batteries, tools, a first aid kit, a NOAA Weather Radio, and food and water for visitors and staff to use during period of unexpected confinement.

-Prepare statements to be released to the media for if a crisis occurs.  Identify key audiences and know what type of information would be sought to keep your community informed on the state of your museum.

If a disaster does occur:

-Once it is safe to enter your museum, do not move objects without documenting their condition.  Make a preliminary tour of all affected areas.  Use a camera to record conditions and make notes to accompany images.

-Inspect elements of the physical building, including checking for damaged live electrical wiring, broken gas lines, and water leaks.

The two most important steps for a successful follow-through of your Disaster Preparedness Plan: 

-Test your disaster plan.

-Train all of your staff (volunteers and employees) on your disaster preparedness plan.


Check out our Local History Notebook posts to learn more about disaster prevention and planning (article 1 and article 2).

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