Students at the Library at Churchill College were interrupted during their studies by the fire alarm going off at 19.07 on Tuesday evening last week.

They had become involved in a large exercise to test the College’s response to a fire emergency at the Archives Centre. The porters on duty had no idea that this was a drill and so responded as if it were a real incident, assisting the five fire crews, from different regions, as they arrived in their vehicles a few minutes later, and calling out Archives Centre staff.

For us, the Archives team who would be on hand to respond to an emergency, this felt very real and very scary!

Fire crew at the Archives Centre

Fire crews soon after arrival, preparing fire hoses and assessing the situation.

The scenario we’d agreed ahead with the Fire Service was that there had been a fire in our storage area that had been put out by our gas fire suppression system, but there was damage to the roof and the room was filled with smoke. It was also out-of-hours, so everything was securely locked up and alarmed as normal – and of course it was a cold, dark winter’s night.

For the fire crew commanders, this was a carefully planned training event involving crews from Cambridge, St Neots, Gamlingay, Linton and Royston. It tested their ability and co-ordination in assessing the situation, stabilising it and evacuating priority material identified in the Archive Centre’s Disaster Contingency Plan. We had prepared 280 filled dummy priority boxes (many heavy) which had to be moved by the fire-fighters, wearing heavy breathing apparatus, to a secure area while keeping them safe at all times. With this in mind, the crews set up a protected, covered area outside the building to take the material to before moving it to another building. While this was going on, another crew were using long ladders to access the roof in order to cover it with heavy duty sheeting to protect the storage area from the elements. Inside the store, other fire-fighters were sheeting up the shelving directly underneath the hole in the roof to protect the archives still in the room.

Fire fighters putting on breathing apparatus

Fire fighters putting on breathing apparatus.


Exercise in full swing

In full swing – note temporary (yellow) shelter in background.

We looked on, offering advice and help to the crews to enable access to the secure areas and identification of the priority collection. We prepared the temporary storage area identified in our Plan, using equipment and materials stockpiled in an emergency store cupboard.

Priority boxes

Priority boxes moved to safe temporary storage area under the watchful eye of an archivist.

Nearly two and a half hours later, the fire crews had stabilised the areas and moved the priority material to the temporary storage area. They were exhausted and we were high on adrenaline!

The College had arranged for refreshments to be laid on in the buttery for anyone that needed them at any point throughout the exercise. A few of the fire-fighters took a well earned cuppa at the end of the exercise and all seemed to have had a fruitful and even enjoyable time.

Fire crews after the exercise


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