National Archives News

Archives Personnel Train for Disasters

by Kerri Lawrence | National Archives News

COLLEGE PARK, Maryland, October 5, 2017 – Natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, and fires can have catastrophic effects on entire states or territories and the people who live there.

They can also destroy or damage important records. To prepare to deal with the impact of such disasters, a group of National Archives personnel gathered here this week to conduct salvage and recovery training exercises.

More than 40 National Archives conservators, preservationists, and technicians gained hands-on experience in emergency response and salvage decision-making through a simulated disaster area—enabling them to test their skills in recovery and restoration of water-logged facsimile records and objects.

Even Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero rolled up his sleeves and pitched in during the mock recovery efforts.

“Preservationists play a vital role in ensuring the records in our holdings are maintained in the best possible condition for future generations of Americans,” Ferriero said. “This exercise provides the firsthand practice to ensure their continuing professional growth, experience, and preparedness.”

Participants attended morning lectures focusing on best practices in disaster preparation, risk assessment, and response and recovery operations. Topics included the history of disaster recovery, the role of responders, health and safety issues, dangers, and response team roles in salvage operations.

The instructors have had extensive experience with actual salvage recovery operations like those for Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Each one is a National Heritage Responder (NHR), a member of the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation (FAIC) team that has been invited to disaster sites to help with recovery efforts. Based on those experiences, the instructors also offered practical tips from what to do with clothing worn at a recovery site to how to handle press, volunteers, or those emotionally affected at a disaster site.

NHR and workshop instructor Susan Duhl said the simulation exercise was designed to help participants encounter some of the problems or situations that they could experience at a real-life disaster recovery operation.

“These are preservation and conservation professionals by trade...They already know how to properly preserve or salvage documents and records,” Duhl said. “Today is about the roles, responsibilities, and dangers often associated with a disaster scene.”

During the simulation exercises, teams of up to five professionals were tasked with salvaging water-logged facsimile records—everything from printed and handwritten paper documents to microfilm, photographs, videocassettes, textiles, and artwork.

Group members were charged with not only following proper preservation protocol, but working in teams—taking on different roles to get the job done, and working safely in a recovery effort. Participants took on the responsibilities of incident commander, communications director, or security or supply officer.

Abigail Aldrich, exhibits conservator at the National Archives in Washington, DC, said the exercise taught her methods for efficiently approaching response or recovery efforts.

“As a conservator, you want to save it all. Today, we learned that safety comes first and having a really structured approach helps tremendously,” Aldrich said. “We each have a job to do as a team and it takes a wide range of skills in a recovery effort.”

Vincent Carney, a conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, noted that the exercise forced him to step outside his normal comfort zone.

“This training has exposed us to a new set of circumstances we don’t encounter every day,” Carney said. “It has forced me personally to use what I know in a highly charged setting and work with a variety of people in multiple roles, but with one common goal in mind—saving valuable records.”

Tracy McDaniel, archives technician at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, MD, said this training had a very personal connection for her. McDaniel said her family once lived in Port Arthur, TX, an area directly impacted by hurricane disasters. She told how the family's home was severely damaged during a hurricane and of their loss of many valuable personal treasures.

“All of my baby photos are gone; we have no pictures left,” McDaniel said. She shared the emotional impact her family felt and noted that Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) help after the disaster helped her to recognize the importance of aiding those directly affected by a disaster.

Instructors Duhl, National Heritage Responders Ann Frellsen and Vicki Lee, also a conservator with the National Archives, made sure the teams encountered a variety of real situations that could occur at a disaster site, such as victim and volunteer presence, press coverage, stolen records and materials, and ever-changing site conditions.

“Because every incident is different, every response effort is different as well,” Lee said. She noted that the training aimed to provide “some very real situations or dangers that could occur should our participants be called upon to work in a disaster recovery operation.”

Pam Kirschner, a preservation specialist at the National Archives at College Park, said the training offered her a unique opportunity to experience some of the emotions one might encounter at a disaster site.

“The emotional part about a recovery effort and working with a team in somewhat stressful circumstances—similar to a scenario at a disaster scene—was truly a valuable experience,” Kirschner said. “This training has given us experience that we can rely on if we are called to do this in real life.”