BCMA Climate Action Podcast Series EP03: A Conversation with the BC Heritage Emergency Response Network (Part One)

This is a transcript of part one of the conversation with BC HERN in episode 3 of the BCMA Climate Action Podcast. Click below to listen to the recording.

Published November 9th, 2021


Tanya: Welcome to the BC Museum Association’s climate action and leadership network podcast series. The summer of 2021 has seen destructive record-breaking heat waves, unprecedented droughts, and tragic wildfires that have displaced entire communities. It is critical that museums, heritage organizations, and cultural professionals demand climate action, and that we all do our part to be advocates for change.

In this time of climate change, wildfires, floods, and destructive storms are becoming common events, adding to the known risk of earthquakes in British Columbia. All of these pose a serious threat to museums, art galleries, and other cultural institutions. The British Columbia Heritage Emergency Response Network – BC HERN – is a growing association of institutions in BC’s art and culture sector, who believe that our best line of defense is emergency preparedness, salvage training, and joining forces to support each other. Members of BC HERN feel morally and professionally obligated to safeguard collections they curate and manage.

We are so grateful to be joined today by BC HERN. I would like to welcome Tara [Fraser] and Heidi [Swierenga]. My name is Tanya Pacholok, BCMA’s digital engagement specialist, and I’m your host today joining virtually from amiskwaciy-wâskahikan, on treaty six territory, colonially known as Edmonton Alberta. So, welcome Tara and Heidi.

I was wondering if you could both share a little bit about where you are in this moment. So maybe Tara, if you’d like to go first?


Tara: Hi, Tanya, and thank you for having us. Currently I’m coming to you from the Vancouver Art Gallery, which is situated on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

I’m at my desk in the basement. I have my two [computer] monitors and my left wrappers from Halloween candy. And I’m excited to be talking to you today about emergency preparedness, and our experiences.


Tanya: Thanks, Tara, happy to have you here. And Heidi…?


Heidi: Hi, I’m Heidi Swierenga and I’m privileged to be speaking to you today from the traditional and unceded territory of the Hul’q’umi’num’ speaking Musqueam people here at the University of British Columbia, Museum of Anthropology.

Also, extremely happy that you’ve invited us here to talk about this really important subject.


Tanya: Thank you both. We’re really grateful to have you.

So, if we could start off and learn a little bit about BC HERN- so what is BC HERN and how did it come to be?


Heidi: So, BC HERN stands for the British Columbia Heritage Emergency Response Network, and it started way back in… as far away as 2013, but it was a slow start, and around that time, a few of us in the conservation community here on the coast experienced some pretty significant events within our institutions and with other institutions that we responded to. And it became really worrisome and apparent that there was no organized response and recovery system in place to help keepers and holders and owners of heritage collections, be them libraries, museums, archives, galleries.

And so, we started trying to figure out how we could go about making a change and with some support we were successful in obtaining our first little bit of funding that came from the Museum Assistance Program, Canadian Heritage, and with that, the very first thing that we wanted to address was getting the larger institutions that had conservation resources already in house signed onto a statement of cooperation, agreeing that emergency response was actually a critical thing for collections. And within that, allowing conservators who worked within those institutions to participate in not just trying to build a network, but also developing and delivering resources that would increase the training within the province as a whole.


Tanya: Can you explain a little bit to us, what is emergency preparedness and why is it relevant for museums, cultural institutions and organizations across BC? And maybe also, why are you both passionate about it?


Tara: Emergency preparedness… It means a lot of things to a lot of people, but in cultural institutions and museums and other organizations, it’s part of an overall strategy that we use to minimize the impact of an emergency or a disaster, if you will.

We think of it and look at it as a continual process where we identify risks and we take actions to reduce or eliminate those risks. We are involved in collections care as institutions. That’s in these cultural situations and that’s what sets us apart in some instances, but we are constantly carrying out and implementing collections care and prioritizing our resources, so when we do emergency preparedness, this actually compliments our collections care by reducing our risks to our collection. We do that through assessments and planning and ongoing preventative efforts, if you will, but this process, it involves a lot of people in our organizations, whether it’s collections managers, conservators like ourselves, our facility staff, administrators. So, it is this overall strategy in an institution to, to minimize as I said, the impact of an emergency.

It’s, it comes in different forms or it’s different formats, but it, without it you don’t have a feeling of preparedness. And the need to respond is a little bit anxious by nature. And this gives you some structure and guidelines. It’s important in cultural institutions and museums and galleries and things like because an emergency or disaster has the huge potential to destroy everything and what it would destroy, or even if it destroys an individual item, what it’s going to destroy could very well be a unique item or a unique collection.

And as custodians of cultural property, we have this property, we care for it, and the idea of damaging or destroying it, even one or an item or a collection is pretty heartbreaking. So we do this emergency preparedness, like I say, to not only give us the comfort that comes with knowing we’re dealing with it, but it helps us eliminate our risk and reduce our losses if you will. I personally am passionate about it because I’ve seen it work. And I’ve seen it not work. I’ve seen the destruction, we’ve dealt with issues and loss of items or collections, and knowing it can work is heartbreaking and knowing you can be part of a process that moves forward and can make it work is really exciting and invigorating.

And it just gives you a real sense of accomplishment that look sometimes can go above our normal collections care.


Heidi: And I think just to add to what Tara has said is I think for me, fundamentally, our response to emergency is primal. We will revert to something very basic, which is you’re going to freeze, or you’re going to, you’re going to run away from the situation and or you’re going to try to tackle it and make a big difference and perhaps do some damage in the process. And being prepared, going through training, gaining a little bit of comfort around a response situation will make the difference between a group of people running around like chickens with their heads cut off and actually making efficient and effective actions and decisions in order to minimize the amount of damage that can happen.

And I think the question of why are we passionate about this is because it’s just it’s such a no brainer. We see a complete void in the level of confidence that’s out there and the amount of support each of our institutions has, if it came to a big emergency, and it is such a no brainer to connect with other people and get some practice under your belt so that you can actually make good decisions.


Tara: Heidi is absolutely correct. It, the spur of the moment, what happens in the event of an emergency or disaster means different…means different things to different people and they react differently. And if you have preparedness at whatever level it’s going to influence your reactions and they’re going to be better.

I’ve literally seen a colleague, when the alarm went off, they grabbed their wastepaper basket around [to collect items in the basket], there’s no, and that’s where they were at. There’s no judgment. There’s no right or wrong. But there are ways that we can improve those responses for sure.


Tanya: That’s so true. I bet you don’t even really know how you’re going to respond sometimes in those situations.


Tara: Absolutely. I’ve often wondered, am I going to be that person that, you know, drives on at a, at an accident? Or am I going to stop and help?


Heidi: More likely you have a, you have a belief about how you believe you are going to behave in one way or another, but then when the actual critical situation happens, your brain turns into something else and you don’t perform the way you thought you were going to.

And what we learned, what we experienced in many people too, is when it comes down to it, it’s not necessarily the people who are in those predesignated rules that will excel in each function. So, your head of your, let’s just say museum service department or something may be a great leader, but when it comes to a high-pressure emergency situation, they’re the person that needs to go to get the donuts because they can’t cope.

And it’s no judgment upon anybody. It’s just the fact that some people, because of a lack of experience, because of their own way of working, really need to be guided towards a different function and taken out of that position of being able to tell people what to do.


Tanya: So how can museums and cultural institutions better respond to collection emergencies then?


Tara: That’s a great question, Tanya. Museums and cultural institutions can actually respond to collections emergencies in a variety of ways, but it all comes down to a matter of preparation. It’s… it has aspects, but it boils down to planning and you may have heard “planning, prevention, protection, response”.

So, it boils down to planning and prevention, and training and practice in response and recovery. Planning, if you think of it in those kinds of categories, planning is what we do. It’s the catch-all way that we maintain control over our planning, our prevention, our response, our recovery: it’s that maintenance of what we call an emergency manual or preservation or sorry, a disaster manual. And that’s part of the planning process. The planning is mentally running through all the scenarios and being prepared to deal with it.

The prevention aspect, we do things like, we do safety and security assessments. We do water checks. We do integrated pest management to prevent issues with insects. We do collection surveys. We back up our data. We have supplies on hand. And these are all ways we work to prevent it, captured in our planning process.

We also importantly, deal with protection. We, part of our process of responding is to start with protection where we look at fire suppression and detection, water detection, things like that, security measures. And the other way they can, in addition to planning and prevention and protection I think the big one, which we’ve talked to a little bit is training and practice is probably one of the best ways that we can respond efficiently and effectively in the event of a disaster and emergency. And that planning and training is only effective if the complete staff understand that plan and have the resources to implement it, like it can’t be undervalued.

And how we react, as we’ve alluded to before, how we react in an emergency situation, whether we’re the person that will stand up and fight, flight, or flee – I think is the expression – where you are in that scenario, I think is supported by good training and practice and opportunities. Working with your colleagues in that situation, you can work with them in a team situation in your institution, but put the same team in an emergency response and you’ll have different personalities. And I think that, say planning and prevention, and then training in a museum and cultural institutions, this is where we’re going to have our best insurance policy.


Tanya: Did you want to maybe share a little bit about what sort of regular trainings, workshops or webinars and resources that BC HERN offers?


Heidi: oh, yeah! Yeah, yeah if you want to start rattling off the list there and I’ll jump in if you forget something.


Tara: Sure. First off, I want to say that at BC HERN, one of our identified missions, if you will, is training and we see the benefits of training, there’s… we’ve identified what we see as four benefits to training. And that’s as it prepares responders to follow different protocols, I think so.

The training prepares us. The training improves our confidence. Training can help responders correctly use the tools and resources you should have on hand. And training also raises awareness of all involved. So, it’s within your institution, whether, as I mentioned, it’s volunteers, administrators, it really does raise awareness.

So, for these reasons, we think training is really important. And we have a variety of training that we provide. We have salvage training workshops. Those are required as part of the membership. And we do things like case studies. We go over health and safety. We go over documentation at the site. We look at salvage procedures and we problem solve, and we have mock hands-on disasters that involve exercises on how to respond and recover.

So, we have those, we have webinars. We have past events that are recorded and available in the resources section of our website. So, we have a tab on our website that will direct you to all of these things through various situations and opportunities like presented with, from the BCMA. We’ve done a variety of stuff in the past. That’s all available.


Heidi: And then one thing that we are building right now, but I think is going to turn into one of our key resources is a, we have a whole bunch of information sheets that we’re currently writing and designing. We only have a couple of them up on our website now, but we have a vision here where we’ll be creating a compendium that people can use to add to their disaster plans. Everything to do about salvage, talking not only about certain situations being on fire, flood, earthquake… actually, I don’t know if we’ve done earthquake quick yet, but we should! But also, then go into each individual salvage technique based on materials and the whole idea behind these is that they should be actually, we’re targeting them to two different levels of experience.

One is people who probably already have conservation training or a lot of collections management experience. And they’re more perhaps going to be at the head of the disaster planning or management, and then another set of resources that really are intended to be given to people who have very little training so that they can be given tasks during an emergency response situation. And they’re there, they’re written with a mind on the fact that people can’t digest information or read it very well when they’re in a crisis situation, when they’re stressed. So very few words and lots of diagrams.


Tara: It’s interesting too, from our point of view, because these kinds of resources really stemmed from… it really hearkens back to the development of the BC HERN. We’ve been in these situations. We recognize this need for not only these resources that Heidi is referring to, such as these instant visuals that help that help you react, because we’d be been in these situations and we know what would we have liked at that point? What would have been helpful to us? And we’re taking this knowledge and experiences that we have, and we’re bringing them to our training. That goes for it experiences we have tomorrow, experiences we had last month, they’re all shaping our training and allowing it to grow and be more applicable to the members of our initiative.


Heidi: Yeah. And just, even more specifically, the resources that we would have liked to have had on hand for the responses that we’ve participated in, but for me, the resources that I would like to have had on hand to provide to staff who were there to support the work. Like, that is super critical because when you’re in a situation where you’re trying to command or control a group activity it’s very hard to provide digestible and easy to understand information to other people who are there as volunteers with no previous extra training.


Tara: It’s also very hard to separate what you need to do at that event, plus what you need to tell them. Cause that’s two different, that what Heidi is talking about, is enlisting and directing the assistance of other people’s -staff and volunteers -correctly to prevent damage, further damage. That’s one aspect. And to do that with a brain that’s still trying to actually recover, and respond. Those are two different channels, so to have resources to free up your mind to focus where your best needed, I think is a resource that is invaluable.


Heidi: Yeah. So there- the bottom line; the training, the preparedness is invaluable.


Tanya: Yeah. Excellent. And we will provide some links and more information about a variety of resources and training that you have with this podcast. So, thanks for sharing all of that.


Heidi: Another key resource for the BC HERN and the province, is we’ve got stashed away throughout the province now, a number of what we’re calling BC HERN response kits. We have one in the Prince George area, one of the Vancouver area, there’s one on Vancouver Island. We’re developing another two that will go further east and then another up north. And they’re stocked with what’s, what really should be understood as an enhancement to your own existing institutional emergency response supplies. Because everybody needs their own kit, but sometimes you need a little bit more. And what we found, one of the reasons that we started the BC HERN actually, was because for a one larger event that we were trying to respond to, it took us a number of days to amass the supplies that were needed. So now we’re better prepared with a list of materials that we need, but also, we’ve got them on hand in a number of different locations.


Tanya: How can museums and cultural institutions develop strong and ongoing networks to facilitate an effective local response?


Heidi: That’s a really great question, and Tara, you can jump in here, but for me, the reason that we believe networks are so important is without them, we simply couldn’t do this. It’s not just a matter of six conservators going and responding to every event throughout the province – that is not a sustainable model. It’s not practical. So instead, the model here is train the trainers. Or it’s a pyramid scheme, however you want to think about it! But we are gathering resources, training ourselves up, and then we are moving around the province and offering these workshops so that we have these pods of trained people around that can be pulled on to help respond in an event that happens within their geographical region.

So, it’s not, these six BC HERN people who are responding, it’s the BC HERN network that is responding. And the strengths of that network really depend on how many people go through the training and how many people sign on to volunteer to support these institutions. And it’s, being a volunteer might be, you’re agreeing to be on the end of the phone. You’re not agreeing to jump in a car and drive for six hours to help, but you may be there as an emotional, a technical resource support for somebody who is just at the beginning of their emergency and can’t quite see their way through the muddle because they’re in that panic state. You might also be there to connect them with other people who are geographically closer, who might be able to physically arrive on site to help.

And when we started the BC HERN we sat for a long time, we did a lot of research about what things other people had done around the world in terms of creating these a system that would work. And we looked at our population in British Columbia and we looked at our landmass and we said, the only way this is going to work is if we have a network and we divided the province up into zones much the way they’re already divided up into zones for other resources or for other provincial, federal, reasons. Our goal is to get as many trained dots on the map as possible within each of those zones


Tara: And networking, whether it’s within your institution, but with the BC HERN in the zones and throughout the province. Network, the first thing it does is give you a sense of comradery or of a support… that ‘it takes a village’ approach. Even if it’s just mental support, having that someone else who can relate, has been through the same training, even if they’re not locally available to you, they can, you can talk to them on the phone. You can tell them your situation. They can talk to you. You can share information. Oftentimes, because they’re not at the emergency site, this network can provide a level of support that’s more personal yet removed from the emergency, because your institution’s not dependent on it, your boss is not, nor the purse holders or the financial people at your institution are not maybe going to call you at the evening and say, ‘are you okay? How did it go? What can we do to help?’ Hopefully that internal support is there, but having a network of people, let’s say equally trained with the same motives- cultural property, heritage institutions – it feels good and it, it provides a level of comfort. And with that, I think it frees you up to make better decisions, to just know you can call someone, there’s comfort in that.

If I ever have an emergency or disaster or an event at the Vancouver Art Gallery, for example: yes, we have things in place and yes, we have a disaster plan, but I’m, we’re going to start that process. But at my first deep breath that I can take by myself, I’m calling my colleagues. I’m calling the BC HERN girls, and they’re going to say ‘It’s okay. You can do it.’ You know, ‘have you thought of this. Did you do this? Did you check this?’ And I go, ‘yeah. Yeah. Oh, I forgot that one. Okay. Thanks.’. It’s going to be vital. I know that’s going to be there. And actually, when any of us are either of us or sorry, any of us go on vacation or are unavailable, I give my management and my administration, their number.


Tanya: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a really beautiful note to end on of the importance of that networking and that ‘it takes a village’ approach. And unless there’s anything that either of you wanted to add, I think we can end it there. And we just wanted to thank you so much for all of these insights and thank you for joining us today.

It has been really insightful and I am, I’m speaking for everybody, really interesting for us to learn. And we’re so grateful for you taking the time today, Tara and Heidi.

So, if anyone would like to read more about BC HERN or these topics, we will be providing links and resources in the description. And you can follow the BCMA podcasts on Podbean or your favorite podcast streaming platform, and listen to the rest of the Climate Action Leadership for Museums network series.

And I do invite you to tune into Part B of this conversation, where we will be talking with Tara and Heidi about their Lytton salvage trip.

So, thank you both so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.


Tara: Thank you Tanya, we appreciate the opportunity.


Heidi: Yeah. Thanks for having us.


Tanya: Thank you.


Transcript: BC HERN’s Salvage Trip to Lytton, BC (part 2)

This is part two of our conversation with Tara and Heidi from BC HERN, the British Columbia Heritage Emergency Response Network.