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.
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
- “Hold your fire! Fire prevention in archives, museums, and libraries,” by Nora Lockshin, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Instution Archives
- "Emergency Preparedness," Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Office of Safety, Health, and Environmental Management, Smithsonian Institution
- Pocket Response Plan™ PReP™ Templates, Council of State Archivists