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Emergency Cart for Protecting Collections from Water Damage


This cart contains supplies and tools needed when a museum, library or archive collection is threatened by damage from water, e.g. roof leaks, broken water pipes, malfunctioning sprinkler systems, etc. The cart provides a first line of defense and relies heavily on an emergency preparedness plan that includes staff training and a mobilization system. All staff members including volunteers, docents, and security staff must know what the cart contains and how to use the supplies properly in order to protect the collections.


Michael R. Harris
Medical Sciences Division
Nat’l. Mus. of American History
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, DC 20560 USA
Tel (202) 357-2413
Fax (202)357-4256

Photographs: Ricardo Vargas

Publication: 1992



The cart can easily be fabricated in-house or purchased from a number of industrial storage equipment suppliers. It must be large enough to hold all the supplies and equipment, while making them easily accessible. The cart should be narrow enough to pass through the building’s narrowest door. A 24in to 26in wide cart is recommended. An appropriate size is 24in wide, 48in long, 48in high, or a total of 58in high, when mounted on 8in wheels (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Metal emergency cart on castors. 
                top, Cart with doors closed showing identification markings. 
                bottom, Doors open showing contents.

Materials Tools Supplies

The cart should have the following characteristics.

  • 6in or 8in diameter wheels (two fixed and two swivel) to permit easy movement by one person over door treads, cables, etc.
  • Two locking doors – to provide full access when open and to secure contents from casual pilfering when closed.
  • One or two full shelves (not including floor of cart) for holding small equipment and supplies.
  • Handles running the full width, on both ends of the cart.
  • A removable metal pipe inside the cart near the bottom and toward the front, to hold one 100ft long roll of plastic sheeting of the appropriate width.
  • Hooks and brackets on which to hang extension cords, trouble light, mop and squeegee handles inside the cart.
  • A large label holder on the outside of the cart for a card listing office and home phone numbers of appropriate people to contact during an emergency, and the people who have the key to the cart.
  • The cart should be brightly painted (red or yellow) and clearly marked as to its function. For example, “EMERGENCY CART – STAFF USE ONLY” “CONTACT – XXX OR PHONE #### FOR ACCESS TO THIS CART.”

Contents of the Cart

The supplies to include in the cart will depend on the size of the collection, method of storage, and type of objects stored (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Contents of cart partially removed to show tools and supplies.

Useful items include:

  • Instructions for use of Emergency Cart and a copy of emergency plans if one has been developed.
  • Museum phone book with important numbers marked clearly on cover.
  • Notebook with pencils, pens and markers.
  • Object tags – Medium to large sizes.
  • Blotting paper – 20in x 30in sheets, six to ten sheets, to absorb water off flat paper objects.
  • Door wedges – oversized – 2in high x 8-10in long, made of 2in X 4in wood stock and painted red to alert people that the door left open is due to an emergency. Used to keep open stairway and storage room doors.
  • Dust masks – good quality – six.
  • Electrical extension cord – at least one – 14ga with multiple outlet head.
  • First aid kit – a ten-person size or larger.
  • Flashlights – D-battery size, two or three, and spare batteries.
  • Flood light – at least one with 300 watt to 500 watt exterior flood bulb with a spare bulb. Extra light is often needed during an emergency.
  • Gloves with leather palms – three medium and three large pairs.
  • Gloves, plastic or rubber – one dozen – large size and medium size optional.
  • Goggles, safety plastic. It is most important to protect the eyes of the staff when working in an emergency situation.
  • Head lamp to illuminate the area while leaving hands free.
  • Mops – one or two sponge mops. Cotton head mops are also useful, but wringer buckets are needed. Used to pick up water from floor. A wet/dry vacuum of 30+gal capacity should be considered also.
  • Plastic bags – 18 to 24 bags in assorted sizes (e.g., 1ft x1 ft, 1ft x 2ft, 2ft x 3ft, 3ft x 4ft, 4ft x 6ft bags, 4mil thick), used to protect individual objects from water or to hold and transport wet paper objects, books, papers, etc. for immediate freezing and conservation work at a later date.
  • Plastic buckets – 10gal size with handles. Empty joint compound buckets are very useful. They are used to catch or transfer water.
  • Plastic sheeting – 100ft long x 12ft or 16ft side, 4mil to 6mil thick. Plastic sheeting that is 20ft wide is somewhat difficult to handle but can be useful as back-up for covering shelving during massive leaks.
  • Protective clothing – disposable jumpsuits to protect staff from dirt and water – two extra large, two large, and two medium suits;
    or water proof aprons with large pockets.
  • Rags – Clean, 100% cotton or at least 60% cotton material, in pieces 1ft to 2ft square, used to wipe water and dirt from objects.
  • Rope – nylon or polypropylene – 1/4in or 3/8in thick, two 100ft hanks. The rope is used to tie plastic sheeting or to create tents made of plastic sheeting.
  • Safety helmets – six.
  • Scissors – six
  • Small camera with built-in flash
  • Sponges – four to eight of large size 2in x 4in x 6-8in of good quality to hold water, used to wipe water off objects, shelves, etc.
  • Squeegee – one or two 18-24in wide with long handles, used to move water on floors to nearest drain.
  • String to keep electric cords out of the water.
  • Tape – two rolls of 2in wide polyethylene tape (good to best quality), and five rolls of gray “gaffers” or duct tape. Tapes are used to seal bags, splice sheets of plastic, etc.
  • Tools – hammer, screw drivers (slot, Phillips, and special types if needed to open exhibit cases – large and medium sizes of each type), pliers, hatchet, crowbar, slip joint pliers, mat knife with retractable blade, and nails (6D or 16D common).
  • Trouble light – one is not essential but can be helpful with spare bulb (100-150watt).
  • Wood blocks – eight to twelve of each size – 2in x 4in x 8-16in, 1in x 3-4in x 8-16in. These are used to support large objects above water if they cannot easily be removed from the flooded area.


All institutions should consider stocking in strategic locations around the building, back-up supplies and tools that are too large to fit inside the cart, or are not needed in first-call emergency situations, but are needed in the long run.

Large institutions or institutions housed in multi-storied buildings must consider having several carts placed in strategic, well-marked locations. Staff must not rely on elevators during emergencies, and it is dangerous to attempt to take the cart up and down stairs.

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