Germany’s first Emergency Container: equipment for a quick reaction

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Abrollbehälter Kulturgutschutz. Image by Nadine Thiel.

By Nadine Thiel, Dr. Ulrich Fischer and Frank Peters

From humble beginnings about twenty years ago, emergency associations have now become a mainstay in the protection and disaster relief efforts for cultural heritage in Germany. These associations formed by museums, libraries and archives on a local level have since begun to join forces in order to develop more efficient emergency procedures and to share the cost and effort of providing for emergency equipment for common use.

Upon its foundation in 2018, the Emergency Association of Cologne Archives and Libraries (Notfallverbund Kölner Archive und Bibliotheken) acquired equipment for use in an emergency occurring in any one of its 24 member institutes. Masks, overalls, boots, gloves, stretch film, hoses, carts and many other items were collected in rolling lattice boxes and kept at the City Archive’s site at Köln-Porz Lind for transport to an emergency site by the fire department.

However, both the experience of the collapse of the city archive in Cologne in 2009 as well as that of the fire in the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro (2018) made it abundantly clear that, in the case of an emergency, a single container holding all necessary equipment for a quick reaction would be desirable. Moreover, such a container should also provide all-weather working space for members of the emergency association and everything needed for standard procedures during disaster relief and emergency documentation.

Collaborating closely with the city fire department, a working group in Cologne came up with the idea of an emergency container. This was further refined with more input from the fire department which has used a portable container the size of a standard freight container for a number of purposes: from providing catering equipment for large scale missions to high-end chemical labs used by the analytical task force for emergencies involving chemicals. Soon it became clear that such a container could be the ideal framework for a cultural heritage emergency container, as it could be easily transported to any disaster site. If need be, the portable container could be transported not only by the fire department, but also by other agencies such as the technical relief service, the army, the city administration or even commercial transport companies which all have standard transport equipment, thus freeing fire brigade capacities in the case of a major disaster.

With the institutes pooling their funds for emergency measures, additional funding from a modernisation programme run by the City of Cologne, and grants by a federal scheme for the preservation of cultural heritage, a regional agency and a local bank, the emergency container was ordered from a manufacturer for special vehicles. All in all, the total costs for the container were just short of 150,000 EUR.


Our first priority was to make sure the container fittings were compatible with the machinery and equipment of the city fire brigade. We realised quickly that any catastrophic event involving cultural heritage would inevitably lead to the fire brigade deploying. In the case of a major disaster requiring the entire force of the fire brigade, any of the other agencies or even a commercial carrier would be able to move the container with a standard truck equipped with a load handling system. For electricity and water, as well as drainage, we rely on standard fire brigade equipment. If need be, this could also be provided by other agencies or the army.

Secondly, the container is not intended for restoration treatments; it is meant to be used just like an ambulance vehicle for cultural heritage, not a mobile lab. Damaged material would be salvaged by members of the disaster relief forces and, with the help of volunteers and members of the emergency association, would be registered, documented and stabilised in the container before being transported to a long-term storage facility. In most cases, at least in all those involving water (this includes flooding from rain or ground water, but also damage caused by faulty plumbing in a building or even from water used to put out a fire), heritage material will have to be rinsed with water and then frozen to prevent infestation with mould and other microbes. Before freezing, the material will have to be wrapped in stretch film. It is for these minimum standard procedures that this particular rescue infrastructure is intended. All other conservation-restoration processes as well as identification measures by experts will take place at a later stage and in proper restoration labs.

Thirdly, the container is to provide adequate working spaces for these tasks. The main goal was to enable quick, level and secure passage for the potentially fragile, damaged materials. At least six people (including experts and volunteers) can work together in the container to effectively process the damaged heritage material. The container has a heating system, making it dry even in the most inclement weather, and it can be fitted with an internet connection. Awnings can be extended and linked to additional emergency infrastructure, such as the foldable tents (3x3 metres with a 2-metre minimum height inside) that are also part of the equipment stored in the container.

Finally, the container must be able to hold all the equipment needed for emergency reaction. There has to be ample storage for any protective gear required including the materials used for the rescue procedures and technical appliances for documentation. Moreover, equipment to expand the emergency station (such as the tents) is stored in the rolling lattice boxes. As all needed materials are concentrated in the container, the fire department does not need additional information on what materials to bring or where to find them—they simply bring the emergency container. The fire department itself has drawn up a preliminary operation plan which calls for sending out the container together with a standard fire engine. This means that a core staff for setting up the container will be available at the site, plus all the equipment needed for setting up water and electricity (either from the public grid or from independent sources).


In October 2020 the “Abrollbehälter Kulturgutschutz” (the mobile container for protecting cultural heritage) was delivered to Cologne. The Covid-19 pandemic prevented the first planned training session in early 2021 making the unexpected flood disaster in western Germany in the summer of 2021 the first occasion to use the container. In July 2021, the flooding of the entire town of Stolberg affected the holdings of the city archives. While the archivist and a group of volunteers supported by the city archive of Aachen had immediately begun a rescue operation in the basement of the town hall, additional archival material was kept in another basement room a few blocks away. After liaising with the local fire brigade, the Cologne fire department brought the container to this disaster site. Manned by volunteers from the Cologne disaster relief association and supported by local volunteers and an army detachment, the container was used to process 46 pallets and pallet cages of soaked archive material in five days.

Not much later, it became apparent that museum collections stored in an underground car park in the town of Ahrweiler had also greatly suffered from the flooding in that area. After this material was recovered by specialists from the technical relief services, a special transport lorry—conceived and run by Thuringian specialists—was used to ferry the collection materials to Cologne where they were prepared for freezing or further treatment elsewhere.

After these two missions, we can confidently say that the container has lived up to our expectations. And what is more, its performance has been noted by federal agencies which, in the wake of the disastrous flood catastrophe, have subsequently secured funds for the protection of cultural heritage. Thus, there are plans for additional “Abrollbehälter Kulturgutschutz” to be acquired in the regions affected by last year’s floods in order to ensure an adequate reaction should such a disaster happen again.


Nadine Thiel is head of conservation-restoration at the Historical Archives of Cologne. After the archive collapse in 2009, she coordinated the salvage work on site. She is part of the Presidium of the German Association of Restorer-Conservators (VDR), of the Emergency Network Cologne and Blue Shield Germany.

Dr. Ulrich Fischer is the deputy director of the Historical Archives of Cologne. Since the collapse of the archive in 2009, he has been in charge of reconstruction of the archive. In 2013, he took over as head of the department on municipal records dating back to 1815 and general archival policies. He is a member of Blue Shield Germany. Together with Nadine Thiel, he initiated the Cologne Emergency Network.

Frank Peters has a degree in engineering and is a member of the Cologne professional fire brigade. He is the incident commander for fire protection and technical rescue. He oversees the operational planning in the field of cultural assets as well as the Cologne Cathedral, and he was in charge of operations when the Cologne City Archive collapsed in 2009.

(Read the article and watch the video in the April-May 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 89, p. 18-23)

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"The experience of the collapse of the city archive in Cologne in 2009 as well as that of the fire in the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro (2018) made it abundantly clear that, in the case of an emergency, a single container holding all necessary equipment for a quick reaction would be desirable." Read more about Germany's new emergency container.
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