2 Sept 2019

Emergency Response: Learning from Disaster.

Highly Commended post in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2019. This post is by Sarah Graham, working as a Library Assistant Maynooth University Library

                  "Every Disaster holds evidence of the human capacity to do better" (Ripley.2008.153)
The incredible images of the Notre Dame ablaze less than a month ago were moving and considered by E.C.C.O. ‘a cultural trauma for France’ It is shocking to see the result of over 800 years of continuous human creativity and expression disappear so quickly. Yet these scenes are not unique. The Glasgow School of Art has twice caught fire, to devastating effect and the National Museum of Brazil’s collection of 20 million items was almost entirely lost. Our main defence in these circumstances is a robust emergency response plan and trained staff. This is in all our minds as we go through our own review of the Emergency Response Plan in Maynooth University Library as part of the new Library Strategic Plan.

What can we learn from this catastrophe? The fire started at 6.30 in the evening, burnt for almost 15 hours and took c. 400 firefighters to extinguish. The organist Johann Vexo described the moment the alarm sounded to NBC News, ‘everybody was really surprised because it was the first time we had heard the alarm, so we didn’t really know what to do.’ He then went to the sacristy to look at the alarm system. An indecisive phase is very common in disasters. In The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes – and why, Ripley refers to the normalcy bias. ‘The human brain works by identifying patterns. It uses information from the past to understand what is happening in the present and to anticipate the future’.(Ripley.2008.9) In exceptional circumstances, the brain is looking for new data. Speeding this up comes through clear fire safety instruction and drills. Following events at Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey responded to questions about their provisions on twitter. These include working closely with the London fire service, having regular exercises, architectural briefings and (a beautiful phrase) they ‘have a comprehensive and regularly-tested salvage plan’.

The fire in Notre Dame however, took hold. France’s Deputy Interior Minister said to the BBC that the building was within 30 minutes of total loss. As the fire developed, American firefighter Gregg Favre gave some insight as to the likely situation inside.

He continues; ‘Inside is a whole other problem, the primary option is a large 2.5” fire hose ... this option also means placing responders on the inside as the roof is falling down around them.’ The work of the Paris firefighters was phenomenal. It appears they quickly realised that the roof was lost and focused their attention on the most iconic and valuable areas; the west towers, the rose windows and salvaging portable items. This can be factored into our emergency plan, by establishing a priority of collections with plans indicating their location and access.

The first fire at the Glasgow School of Art happened about six months before I moved to the city. There was real effort to try to learn from this incident. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service did a thorough investigation and put together a video showing how quickly the blaze was able to spread through a system of vents vertically, from the basement to the upper floors. Similarly, sketches provided by the draftsman as the Notre Dame was on fire, proved informative in assessing and documenting the progress of the fire within the spaces of the cathedral.

The following morning when I walked into work, I passed the crane carrying out work on the roof of St Patrick’s College and opened up the Russell library with its beautiful wooden hammerbeam roof. Thankfully, the University safety officer assured me of his robust fire provisions. This is a matter taken very seriously at Maynooth as we are not strangers to fire ourselves. Probably the most renowned fire was on the historic south campus. In 1940, New House caught fire and was gutted. “The timber roof, a hundred and thirty years old, burnt like tinder.”(Corish.1995.325) Fire-fighting equipment onsite proved ineffective and help was called out from Dublin. The salvage was carried out by students who “worked through a building blazing above them, throwing anything that they could out the windows … ignoring calls from understandably anxious deans below.”(Corish.1995.326)

'Philisophers analysing fire-fighting equipment" (Corish. 1995. Plate 67) Photo from the 1940 House Fire

Hammbream roof in the Russell Library © Maynooth University Library

We must consider all of this when we approach our Emergency Response Plan. It can be daunting to assess potential risks and consider the various ways our collections could be threatened. However, protecting our heritage is a proactive challenge, emergency response is a cornerstone of collection care and a duty to the safety of our valuable material. I see it as empowering because in emergencies some people freeze, panic or procrastinate. Our best chance, is to prepare for these incidents in advance with cool heads. With such examples of disaster around us, we can’t afford not to.

Corish, P.J. (1995) Maynooth College 1795 - 1995. Gill and McMillan
Ripley, A. (2008). The Unthinkable: Who Survives when disaster strikes and why. London: Harmony


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