Disaster Response Plans during COVID-19
The Conservation Department has a well-established emergency response system with Salvage Teams at both our London and West Yorkshire sites. Team members are on a callout rota and will work alongside other colleagues if we have an incident that threatens our collections.
On 23rd March this year, The UK Government announced a nationwide lockdown in response to COVID-19. We, like many others in the sector, had to re-evaluate our underlying assumptions about how we would respond to incidents affecting our collections. Countrywide we were now discouraged from travelling and asked to remain at home.
We are fortunate that our colleagues in the Estates, Health and Safety and Security teams have continued to work through lockdown, keeping our buildings and collections safe. This reduces the likelihood that the Salvage Team would need to be called out. However, we needed to make sure we understood when, and how, we could effectively respond if either Team were required.
This meant we had to review our procedures in the midst of an unfolding situation. We had limited guidance and prior experience to refer to, and so worked methodically one step at a time. Firstly, we clarified what we were permitted to do under the lockdown restrictions and then considered what changes we needed to make to our procedures. The situation meant that we had to be flexible and we realised that any updates made could be subject to further change at a later stage.
Secondly, we needed to communicate any changes to the Salvage Team and other stakeholders, most of whom were now at home and not necessarily easily contactable.
Our primary consideration was the safety of the Salvage Team and other colleagues. We already have risk assessments covering normal salvage operations, so my colleague Emily Watts (Collection Care North Manager) and I began by drafting a COVID-19 specific health and safety risk assessment. The risk assessment covered all aspects of the response, from travel to safe working on site. Considerations included: Under what circumstances could the team travel? Were usual travel methods advisable? Were there personal considerations which meant that people preferred not to be on call at this time?
Any changes that we made also needed to reflect site differences. For example, in West Yorkshire, most people drive while in London, the majority of the team is reliant on public transport.
Secondly, while we always consider the option of providing advice without being on site, we worked through this in more detail to reduce further the likelihood that anyone would be needed on site. If there was a need to attend, could team members arrange to arrive at the point when they were needed? What practical help could we provide remotely and what did we need to be on site to do?
Risks to collection
At the same time, I was taking part in a separate exercise to assess risks to collections during this period. It is natural to assume that while buildings are closed, risks also increase. However, while some may increase, others reduce. The risk assessment evaluated how the picture had changed and identified any increased risks. The outcomes enabled us to identify any mitigation that was needed, for example, regular on-site checks or closer liaison with colleagues who were on site.
Briefing notes communicated the risk assessment outcomes to the Salvage Team. We also briefed our key stakeholders; this ensured that there was a common understanding of the measures in place should there be an incident during this period.
As time has moved on, the lockdown has eased. We have started to reoccupy and open our buildings, and the risk assessment - as a living document - can be revisited and updated.
Practical salvage operations
Once on-site, we needed to consider how the Team could work safely. We needed to think about how the requirement for social distancing could be incorporated when, by its nature, salvage operations rely on close physical working with colleagues.
We have a range of PPE available to the team, but rather than this being selected in response to the incident, we now ask that people don specific items from their arrival on site. In terms of revised procedures, we want to maintain flexibility and not be too prescriptive. We are therefore encouraging Salvage Team members to plan the response carefully to limit the need for close working wherever possible. The Team have been encouraged to raise issues and, ultimately, told to cease operations if they have concerns.
Small adjustments to workflows can be made to ensure social distancing, but there is a knock-on impact. For example, we can minimise activities that do require people to work together closely, such as sheeting up with plastic. We can encourage the use of tools, such as trolleys, rather than passing items from person to person or moving them in pairs. However, we need to accept that this will mean that working methods are less efficient and so could take longer. Team members may also need to rotate more frequently and work shorter shifts, and have more breaks.
By contrast, working remotely, we have realised that video calling software creates more options to provide an immediate off-site response or to have a hybrid response with some team members on-site and others providing assistance from home.
Responding to emergencies
By working out what the significant risks were, and combining this with the need to ensure staff safety, we could then look at how this would affect our response.
As an example, our system is based on us using a series of pool phones which contain our salvage manual in a set of small files. This structure enables the user to navigate to the content that they want rather than wading through a long document to find the relevant section. Each week, those on-call pick up their allocated salvage phone and then return it at the end of their duty week. Now the phones were with those who last used them with no mechanism to swap them between us.
A priority for me was to ensure that everyone still had this information in some form when they were on-call. Provided as long-form documents, this reinforced how well the small bite-size files works. I'm currently working with our IT department to investigate options to switch from using the pool phones to using secure collaborative tools. These can be accessed on a range of devices, ensuring easier access to all Salvage Team resources by multiple users. Changing systems also presents an opportunity to save costs on handsets and data contracts.
One thing we did maintain was our usual rota system whereby the Team members on-call that week report in by email every Monday morning. However, during the lockdown, we have been using WhatsApp (a group messaging app). Communications go to all team members at once, which means that there is less chance of missing a notification if someone can't do their duty or needs to call out the whole team. Again collaborative working tools provide more sophisticated messaging options which could simplify this further.
Some short term changes to procedures, introduced to cover the lockdown period and early stages of reoccupation, are no longer needed. However, if the need arose, we could reinstate them. Remote working has also reinforced those temporary procedures that work well which we want to continue to use.
Staying in touch
One of the on-going risks we identified was the challenge of keeping distributed Salvage Team members in contact. Team cohesion is critical; successful incident response depends on everyone working together as a team and supporting each other. Not all team members typically work closely together, and those that do were now physically separated. We have recently recruited three new team members to the London Salvage Team, one of whom had not begun their induction process. It was important to me that they and their colleagues felt supported in this unprecedented situation and so we started to think about how best to do this.
Over the last 18 months, I have completely revised the Salvage Team induction training. One of the new additions is a module around decision-making. This involved looking back at actual incidents to discuss what had occurred, how people were alerted, who did what and how decisions were made. New team members who have completed this fed back that they felt reassured by this and much clearer about their role in an emergency. An outstanding action was for existing Team Members to attend the same session.
We have also been offering individual training exercises, for induction training and general refresher training alongside as group exercises. Feedback from these had been positive as people could complete them at their convenience and own pace. We realised that offering similar activities, to be completed at home, would deliver a double benefit. It was a way of keeping the Salvage Team in contact while also ensuring that their skills and knowledge are maintained.
In the next blog, my colleague Nicole Monjeau will explain more about this training programme and how it has developed into something much more valuable than we'd envisaged.
Lead Preventive Conservator