Emergency Planning for Historic Houses: Guidelines

Planning for emergencies

In order to protect collections effectively and efficiently in the event of an emergency it is essential that historic house owners and managers have prepared an emergency plan for the site. This is best done in collaboration with the local fire and rescue service where possible.

Preparation of the Emergency Plan

Identifying hazards and assessing risks

Risks: Identify the things which are the greatest risk for your property, for example hazards such as fire, flood, vandalism theft, presence of asbestos and other hazardous materials, terrorism, extreme weather conditions such as torrential rain. The Emergency Plan for the property will need to list the actions which will have to be taken in the event of any of these events occurring. Priority can be given to those which you have assessed are most likely to occur

Maintenance regime

A regular maintenance regime will help to reduce the potential for disasters occurring. The maintenance tasks to be carried out must be stipulated, with the required frequency.

The Contents of an Emergency Plan

Templates for emergency plans can be found on a number of websites and for many years many museums have used the template produced by the East Midlands Museums Service.

Priority items and Room and Floor Plans

The most important items to retrieve in the event of an emergency should be identified. This may be difficult if you feel that a great deal of the collection is highly significant and if all the collections were purchased for the house. It is however very important to have identified priority items. In the event of an emergency actions and decisions may need to be taken very quickly. Depending on the nature of the incident you may be able to move items at risk to a point of safety yourself or you may need to rely on the Fire and Rescue Service to do this for you. They will have limited time and they will require clear instructions and plans. Some priority items may be too large to move and may require in-situ protection.

Having identified the priority items room plans can be prepared, showing the location of the following:

  • Primary and secondary exit routes
  • Location of priority items
  • Location of hazardous materials
  • Fire compartmentation
  • Location of controls for switching off services such as water and electricity.

Emergency equipment and supplies

It is very useful to have some basic equipment and material on site. This can be particularly important in the event of water ingress when you may need to mop up water from historic surfaces or from collections. Personal protective equipment should also be provided for anyone who may be involved in salvaging collections. Equipment and materials such as the following should be purchased as a minimum: absorbent materials, packing materials, personal protective equipment, carrying straps/trolleys, polythene, hand tools and crates.

Site Plans

Plans of the site need to be produced showing the following:

  • Assembly point
  • Control point
  • Access for emergency vehicles
  • Location of Emergency Store
  • Location to which collections could be taken if they had to be removed from the house, for example an out building, another building on site or a nearby property.
  • Location of fire hydrants and sources of water
  • Where to switch of the main services such as water and electricity.


Actions to take in the event of a specific emergency

Determine in advance the actions you would need to take in the event an emergency occurring.


When an incident occurs the following activities may be required: controlling the incident, evacuating people, assessing priorities for actions, phoning emergency services, liaising with emergency services when they arrive, moving and protecting collections, maintaining security of the site, ensuring safety and welfare of staff, visitors, tenants, family  etc. One way of ensuring that all these activities are carried out is to identify and define roles and accompanying tasks lists/ checklists, and delegate roles as people become available to help.

The following roles are important in the successful response to an emergency:

  • Someone who is in control
  • Someone who liaises with the Emergency Services, who is very familiar with the site and systems and procedures
  • Someone to deal with the Media
  • Someone who can lead a Salvage Team to move collections to a place of safety, which may be in another part of the building or outside the building, dependent on the nature of the incident,
  • Someone who is responsible for security.

Risk Assessment

If a small incident occurs, such as a minor water leak, it may be possible to deal with it very simply and quickly. If however a major incident occurs the emergency services should be contacted immediately. If the Fire and Rescue Service assume responsibility for the site you will not be allowed into the building or the affected area until they deem it safe to do so. In advance of an emergency a risk assessment should be written identifying the health and safety risks that could be expected to be present. It is important to update and review the risk assessment during an emergency and actions should be taken to minimise the level of risk.

Contact numbers

The following are required:

  • Contact numbers for key personnel and staff, to include out of hours contact numbers
  • Contractors: plumber, electrician, suppliers for equipment and materials, freelance conservator-restorers who have agreed that they would respond if available, 24 hour security and storage and transport companies.
  • Insurers

Call out procedures

Establish a system for contacting those who would be needed in the event of an emergency.

Training Plan

An emergency plan should include a training planning which describes how those who will respond in an emergency will be trained. There will be certain roles which it would be natural for certain people in an organisation to assume. it is vital, however, to train others in these roles too, for a number of reasons: to ensure flexibility within the team so that people can cover if the obvious person is unavailable and also because in an emergency people will get tired quickly and need to take regular breaks and may be replaced by others to allow them to rest.

Collections Salvage Reference Manual

If a disaster occurs which affects a large geographical area such as wide spread flooding it is possible that external help may not arrive for a day or two. Certain materials once wet can deteriorate rapidly if no action is taken in the first 48 hours, after which mould growth can occur. Mould is both harmful to people and can cause irreparable damage.

It is useful to be aware of the initial actions that can be taken to minimise damage to collections.  A reference manual can be prepared as an appendix to the Emergency Plan giving simple instructions for initial actions to take for different kinds of collections.


Uppark Restored. Christopher Rowell and John Martin Robinson. The National Trust. 1996
Building and Emergency Plan. A Guide for Museums and Other Cultural Institutions. Compiled by Valerie Dorge and Sharon L. Jones. The Getty Conservation Institute. 1999.
Flooding and Historic Buildings. Technical Advice Note. English Heritage>Research and Conservation>Public Policy>Climate Change> Flood Advice


Conservation Register: To find out contact details for conservator-restorers  working in a given area, by postcode and location. Some will specify that they provide advice and practical support in the event of a disaster. http://www.conservationregister.com
Collections Link: www.collectionslink.org.uk
The Environment Agency: http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/ Subjects> Floods
UK Resilience: http://www.ukresilience.gov.uk/
A great deal of advice and guidance on Emergency Preparedness; Response and Recovery; planning in relation to specific types of emergency from fire, drought to structural failure and industrial technical failure. Case studies. Business Continuity pages. The site is the webpage for the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS), which works in partnership with government departments and others to “enhance the UK’s ability to respond to and recover from emergencies.
MLA SE: Renaissance   http://www.mlasoutheast.org.uk/museums/renaissance/
Currently has Emergency Plan templates; Training Priority Lists; Roles and Responsibilities; Salvage Suppliers (largely specific to the SE); Accommodation for Salvage Operations, and an Introduction to Emergency Planning.
M25 Consortium of Academic Libraries
Has a lot of useful information about developing a plan, risk assessments and response. Accessed via Services and Resources and then Disaster Planning.
The Cabinet Office: [Update May 2010.]
Provides information about the National and Community Risk Registers. Can also Google “community risk register ” for your town. If available will give information about the major risks already identified by related organisations.
DCMS: Department of Culture, Media and Sport Working with us> Business Continuity Planning> Guidance  Essential guidance and templates for Business Continuity Planning.
This article offers general guidance and is not intended to be a substitute for the professional advice of an accredited conservator-restorer. The views expressed are those of the author or authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Conservation. The Institute of Conservation and its partners accept no liability for any loss or damage which may arise if this guidance is followed.