Tips and Resources for Preparing for Emergencies

A crucial element of protecting historic buildings, collections and artefacts is ensuring that plans are in place which allow owners, curators, managers, wardens, and emergency responders to react swiftly in the event of an emergency or catastrophic event such as a fire or flood.


Recent high profile events such as fires at the Glasgow School of Art, the Al –Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and Notre-Dame Cathedral have underlined how swiftly fires can take hold; but have also demonstrated how effective planning can help minimise the losses and be a springboard for conservation and restoration.


Events like this are, thankfully, rare, but it is likely that everyone who cares for heritage will have to deal with an emergency of some kind at some point. Whether it is be flooding caused by a burst pipe affecting art or archives, damage as a result of a storm, or metal theft leaving a building open to the elements, it does well to be prepared.


Planning should bespoke to each building or collection, but here are some things to consider:


Emergency Exits (and Entrances)

How will people get to safety during an emergency, and how will emergency responders get in.
Where are the nearest fire hydrants or water supplies?


Responsible People

Who will take charge in event of an emergency, how can they be contacted ?


Security, and Health and Safety

The safety of people must always take priority.
How will you ensure the safety of salvage teams? How will you secure the building and any secondary sites that collections or archives might be moved to?
How will you control and record who goes on site and what they do there?
Is any part of your collection hazardous – or will it become hazardous in the event of a fire or flood? For example, taxidermy often contains arsenic; paints may contain lead; and plastics can give of toxic fumes when burnt.



Do you have a correct and current inventory of the collection and a plan of where items are located? Remember – this should be updated if something is moved, loaned, or sold.
Are any items immovable, and if so what is the best way to protect them?



In the event of an emergency, what needs rescuing first? Where are high priority items located, and how will they be accessed? Do they disassemble or need to be unplugged or unlocked? How should they be transported, what are the health and safety implications and how should they be stored?  Are some areas of the building at higher risk than others, or more sensitive?


Collections First Aid

What steps might you need to take to preserve the collection or archival material that may be damaged?


Training and Familiarisation

Do your staff and volunteers know what to do in the event of an emergency? Do they know what objects are priorities, and where they should be moved?
How regularly do you need to train your staff and volunteers? If you have contractors working on site are they aware of areas or objects which require special protection?

If you can, arrange to meet with your local fire service to familiarise them with the building and/ or collections.


Contractors and Building Works

If any restoration, or building works are planned, will the work impact your plan? For example, will access routes be affected; or will any hot works be carried out which may require special provisions or supervision?


Storage and Use

It is advisable to have least two hard copies of any documents which will needed during an emergency. One should be stored safely in a location away from the building but which is easily accessible. In certain circumstances first responders such as the fire service may request a copy.

You should also consider the conditions that you will be in if you need to use the plans. Documents should be laminated, so they can be used without damage in wet environments, or wiped clean if necessary.

The plan should contain all of the necessary information, but only what is necessary, and it should be put together in order of use to make finding documents easy.


Site Inspections

Are the provisions laid out in your plan being followed? Are access/ exit routes clear and are steps put in place to minimise risk being complied with?



Find out More


Comprehensive guidance for emergency planning and response, including templates for creating an emergency plan have been produced by Historic England and available free of charge here.


Additional advice on planning and preparedness for floods can be found here. 


A range of advice is also available from Ecclesiastical Insurance, which can be found here