Public-Private Partnership Links Emergency Managers and Cultural Institutions

The aim is to develop relationships with the goal of protecting cultural heritage during disasters.

by Jim McKay / January 5, 2018

During a disaster the most important part of response is to ensure the safety of citizens. But property and things matter too, especially those that relate to cultural heritage.

In a public-private partnership, FEMA and the Smithsonian Institution developed the Heritage Emergency National Task Force, which includes 58 federal and national service agencies and is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The task force is co-chaired by FEMA and the Smithsonian, while the chair lies in the Cultural Rescue Initiative.

In November, the task force welcomed 25 professionals, six from emergency service agencies and 19 from cultural institutions for the Heritage Emergency and Response Training (HEART).

The idea of the training and the program in general is to develop a dialog between emergency managers and cultural institutions about how to save cultural heritage threatened or impacted by disasters.

The task force took root after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 when the Smithsonian, along with many other organizations, mounted a response to help preserve the country’s cultural institutions damaged during the quake. The effort grew into today’s program.

“Really it was a wake-up moment for the Smithsonian,” said Stacy Bowe, training coordinator for the Smithsonian. “We said, we were really helpful maybe we should continue this momentum and that mission is now being carried out by this formalized initiative.”

The 58 agencies are “umbrella organizations,” with members or constituents who are contacted by the task force when a disaster occurs, or one is impending. “I will send preparedness tips about activities they can do to mitigate damage,” said Lori Foley, the FEMA administrator for the task force. “I send it to task force members and they disseminate it to constituents.”

Those institutions then report back to FEMA with need requests and resources are garnered from there. There needn’t be a Presidential Declaration or preliminary damage assessment for this process.

So, what is considered cultural heritage? It could be monuments, buildings, books, even songs, cooking traditions and language. “I was taught that it is what humans value as far as tangible stuff that identifies their cultural identity,” Bowes said.

From a domestic point of view, it’s really “stuff,” like museums, historical societies, archives. “Really the underscore for me,” said Foley, “is the reason why we’re pushing these trainings is because cultural heritage is treated as property but not all property is the same. Human life is the most important thing, but these cultural heritages are what make life worth living.”

The training will occur again later this year and consists of three parts, including pre-training, which requests that participants take the FEMA Incident Command System (ICS) 100 course if they are not familiar with ICS. The second part is the week-long, in-person training and the third is a series of webinars.

Last year’s training invited 25 participants from the emergency management realm and from the cultural communities with the intent to open dialog and communicate the importance of information sharing and understanding each other.

“Part of the goal is to really help cultural institutions but also have the institutions communicate and establish relationships with local emergency managers because that relationship is crucial before, but especially after a disaster,” Foley said.

Platforms & Programs