View of storage cabinet after test burn and suppression, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes. Image no. 2018-06370, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Facing our Fears

An unusually serious Halloween post in which we dress up to stage a mock recovery from a museum fire

In past Halloween posts, we have ritually approached the agents of deterioration (such as dissociation or biodeterioration) with a bit of a wink. This past month, however, has already offered examples of incidents too serious to joke about, such as the partial and near-total destruction by fire in the museum and cultural heritage community. Coincidentally, October, often associated with candlelit pumpkins, is also the time of Fire Protection Week, as sponsored by the National Fire Protection Association. Leading up to this month, the Smithsonian’s pan-institutional emergency preparedness training team worked with our Office of Fire Protection and Office of Safety, Health and Environmental Management to stage “Holy Smokes! Fire Recovery Workshop”, a test burn and recovery of a typical collections storage space, with video (linked below) and data capture.



Drawers opened in a storage container. Objects are in the drawers and on top of the storage unit.

View of non-accessioned object props designated for training use, placed inside and atop a museum cabinet with solid, gasketed doors, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06265.


View of the storage unit on fire.

View of storage cabinet during onset of test burn; fire has spread to storage materials; white smoke accumulates above, 2018, by Nora Lockshin.


View of the storage unit on fire with smoke.

View of storage cabinet during maximum allowable test burn; black smoke pours out the door towards safety suction hood, 2018, by Nora Lockshin.


View of smoke in the room where the storage unit is located.

View of storage cabinet after sprinkler water suppression of fire, 2018, by Nora Lockshin.


People watching and taking pictures of the room on fire from behind glass.

The training group watches the fire as it is being suppressed from the safety of the classroom, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06327.


A group sits at a table and looks at a presentation on a monitor. A women is standing and talking to the group.

While fire cools and safety checks are in progress, the group listens to Kim Harmon, OSHEM Industrial Hygienist, describe potential hazards in collections disasters, whether already present or due to combustion or other effects, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06338.


A group sits at a table and looks at a presentation on a monitor. A man is standing and talking to the group.

While fire cools and safety checks are in progress, the group listens to Mike Kilby, OSHEM Fire Protection Engineer, discuss recent fires in the museum community, and about SI standards for fire protection, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06361.


Monitor with views of the test from multiple angles.

A NIST computer monitor shows three camera views and incoming data from temperature sensors placed inside the test burn space, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes.


A firefighter is in the room where the fire and smoke occurred.

A NIST Firefighter discusses findings from inside the burn test room with the NIST Safety Captain, 2018, by Nora Lockshin.


A firefighter reaches into the burned storage unit.

A NIST Firefighter examines the interior of the museum storage cabinet for hot spots or potentially smoldering material, 2018, by Nora Lockshin.


View of the burned storage unit.

View of storage cabinet after test burn and suppression; char is visible on surrounding walls and on burned objects that were stored atop cabinet. Objects and support materials inside appear largely undisturbed, but experienced high heat, with some soot deposition either due to incomplete levelling and seal of doors, or when firefighter entered cabinet, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06370.


View of the burned storage cabinet and area around it.

View of unenclosed storage shelves after test burn and suppression. Partial view of storage cabinet. Burned items are visible on open shelving closest to ignition site, yet some objects further away in bookcase only suffered soot deposition. Support materials such as foams and draped polyethylene (lower left) on higher shelves melted and stuck to objects or surfaces, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06372.


Three people wearing hard hats and mask stand around burned objects.

A member of the Transport team (left) works with a member of the Documentation team to accurately describe where recovered objects were found on the scene and to match them up with collection location records, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06485.


Two people in hard hats and masks examine and record burned objects.

A member of the Documentation team (left) works with a member of the Transport team (right) to accurately describe recovered objects to match them to collection records, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06477.


Someone wearing a Smithsonian hard hat and a mask examines a burned object.

Fire Protection Engineer Josh Stewart practices soot removal from an object with a controlled vacuum, in a Stabilization step before handing off to Packing section, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06497.


Four people at a work station wrap and pack objects.

The Packing section of the recovery crew work to safely wrap and transport stabilized recovered objects to a secure storage area, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06442.


Five people stand over a table and observe burned objects.

Staff evaluate performance outcomes of mock-up oversize storage structures and materials, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06517.


Five people in protective, white suits pose for a picture.

The PRICE Assessment and Recovery team wearing their personal protective equipment, with Samantha Snell, Chair, at center, 2018, by Michael R. Barnes, 2018-06419.

The controlled test burn took place at the National Fire Research Laboratory (NFRL) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology  (NIST), which generously allowed us to gain needed experience and test some storage materials and equipment. NFRL completed tests with new monitoring equipment to gather data that will aid in creating virtual reality experiences for first responders. Some of their work is already available in their 360 degree video capture from inside the fire scene, which we watched from a safe room where we observed multiple data feeds. It is remarkable to see how quickly the fire spreads from the ignition point, a spark in a wastebasket, to catch on available fuel, which in this case meant storage supplies left next to an enclosed cabinet– definitely a no-no that gets marked up on safety inspections. The plastic corrugated sheets then melt, fall over onto foam packing peanuts and spread the fire to nearby unenclosed storage shelves. You can also see lit ash from objects stored on museum cabinetry flying around the room. The sprinkler, manually triggered by the lab, quickly suppressed the fire, visible when the room goes black with soot and spray.

After the sprinkler release, the NIST Safety and Fire Departments took over the site to determine that there were no hot spots and monitored the air for toxic gases. They treated the “museum fire” as they would a forensic investigation scene, limiting movement, potential further damage or dissociation of objects from their storage locations, and reporting out their observations. While the scene cooled down, the training group returned to the classroom to discuss what they had seen, and continue the training talks over lunch. 

As a trained and experienced responder, I facilitated industrial hygienist Kimberly Harmon’s safety talk, adding some comments, and then suited up in full protective gear to retrieve burned material from the storage shelves and cabinets while wearing monitoring equipment to provide data on respiratory hazards. Smithsonian staff, including Archives Archivist Jennifer Wright and Preservation Specialist Alison Reppert Gerber, who had both previously participated in MayDay wet recovery training, performed triage and condition assessments.

During Kim’s review of physical hazards and risks in recovery scenes and on fire-affected objects, I added some guidance on mental health. To be mindful of one’s own, and one’s coworkers’, state of mind and body is crucial to worker protection and is a practice that supports successful outcomes. Witnessing a familiar scene in a state of destruction, with unfamiliar sights, sounds, or smells, can cause acute physical responses of stress. Stress can cascade into physical and emotional reactions, such as increased heart rate, confusion, anger, and more. Desire to help and make continued progress, can cause a worker to overdo it by refusing to take breaks, or ignore warning signs of fatigue, which can lead to confusion, accidents, exhaustion, or worse. To paraphrase a colleague in the safety profession: “You are the do-ing-ist people I’ve worked with! You just want to get right in there and save the stuff! But you’ve got to protect yourselves first!”

Some comments from our responders on how they felt before, during and after, are illuminating. Anticipating the burn, they reported that they were feeling curious about how the materials would behave and excited to try their skills at recovery, but also had some fear and dread. During the burn, participants described “anxiety,” “awe at how fast the fire spread,” and worry from “not knowing which objects were worst affected” until the scene was declared safe for entry. In the assessment phase, they felt “uncertainty” while waiting and establishing a triage plan, “frustration” with difficulty of pacing and communication between teams in the recovery phase, “nervous” about others’ criteria for assessment and triage, and “overwhelmed” by the amount and clarity of roles during recovery. However, undaunted and encouraged by their trainers, they “became more confident” as they found a rhythm.

In the end participants were “surprised” at the number of objects which required cleaning or drying but had suffered little damage. They learned that the terrifying conflagration that they had feared and witnessed take over a familiar-looking scene was something from which objects could indeed be recovered, with their skills. A participant remarked that they gained “greater comprehension regarding the safety precautions, handling, and sensitivity to collection recovery needs.…”

As a trainer, I know that participants also gained sensitivity not only to needs of the objects, but also to the people affected by and expected to survive and work through a disaster. As mentioned above, a valuable tool in leading successful recovery is the ability to look out for others, and also to step back and rest. More effective recoveries may be aided by incorporating, in training and in a disaster hazard assessment safety plan, both a trauma-informed approach and operational stress controls in disaster recovery, which too can mitigate, if not extinguish, fears.

We deeply thank the National Fire Research Laboratory and partners, and look forward to learning more from our collaboration when their report is completed. We are all better off by how they engaged in and allowed us to participate in their research. For scaring us safely, we owe them a treat or even two! Have a happy, and safe, Hallowe’en.

Update: For more about NFRL's innovative data capture, please jump over to their blog, Taking Measure: Rescuing our History from the Ashes

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