A common but often low priority issue in emergency management is the loss of physical records and electronic data from a disaster. To be honest, I ignored the issue for much of my career. It wasn’t until working on a contract in the northeast and meeting with a lot of local governments did my eyes really open to the importance of the issue. While this article focuses on preservation of records for governments, it can certainly apply to businesses, not for profits, and even individuals.
Many of the local governments we interfaced with on a completely unrelated contract, were talking about their experiences with Tropical Storm Irene. Town officials told of their efforts hauling boxes of town records either to a higher floor of town offices or removing them offsite, with water to their knees or even waist high. Needless to say, many records were lost.
While some of these offices were in known floodplains, others simply suffered from an extraordinary event and the fault of a place where we commonly store things – the basement. Towns (and other municipal offices) often store physical copies of tax maps and records, property deeds, permits, flood insurance information (ironic, isn’t it?), human resources data for town employees, town financial records, court records, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage certificates, divorce certificates, and other information. The loss of this information can have an impact, not only historically, but also on current government operations.
Continuity of government and continuity of operations plans should identify those records which are most important. These are called vital records. Vital records should have the highest degree of protection. The National Archives offers some guidance on the protection of vital records. While the guidance applies to federal agencies, there is still plenty of valuable information which can be applied to other organizations.
Every municipality should examine records storage as part of their continuity of operations and continuity of government planning. It’s not to say that records can’t be stored in the basement of a building, but mitigation efforts must be made to flood proof the building as much as possible, including water alarms and sump pumps connected to emergency power systems. Paper and water don’t mix – so get your records off the floor and consider waterproof storage solutions. Ventilation is also important to prevent molding.
If mitigation is too costly, then you need to consider relocating the records. Regardless of where your records are, you should have a component of your continuity of operations plan that addresses emergency relocation of records – when, how, to where, and who. Digital storage is obviously a great solution. Some towns I spoke with had decided after the storm to scan their records. Catching up to a hundred plus years of records can be pretty time consuming and practically unsurmountable for most municipal offices. This is a service that can be hired out. Be sure to follow sound data protection standards for both storage and access to ensure the continuity of these records.
In the event that records do get wet, all is not necessarily lost. The Preservation Directorate of the US Library of Congress has a lot of information on preservation of records, including a variety of resources and training opportunities. There are also companies that specialize in document preservation and recovery after a disaster. While it’s probably a good idea to identify who you might reach out to in the event of such a loss, know that this is expensive and it’s generally far more cost effective to mitigate against the risk.
Need assistance with government continuity or continuity of operations planning? EPS can help! firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2016 – Timothy Riecker