Preserving Essential Records

Take these steps to protect all forms of paper and electronic data.

When a freight train carrying chlorine gas rammed a parked train in Graniteville, S.C., in January 2005, corrosion heavily damaged the computer center of Avondale Mills, a company located just yards from the impact site. Within a year, the company had closed most of its 17 plants.

Though the company had backups, it could not operate without its most recent transactions and data change. It was forced to incur the cost of salvaging and rebuilding the data from 21 servers. And the disaster might easily have affected other organizations: Two schools sit within a half mile of the disaster site, a hospital is two miles away and the entire county government center is only five miles away.

Governments, businesses and even families create essential records — those that allow them to function without significant interruption in an emergency. How well you plan your essential records will determine how quickly you recover after a disaster. Whether the disaster is localized (a building fire, for instance) or widespread (a hurricane), these four tips will help you prepare.

Understand What Constitutes Essential Records

Essential records can be thought of as records that: (a) are necessary for emergency response, such as emergency plans and delegations of authority; (b) protect health, safety, property and legal rights, including deeds, medical records and active court proceedings; (c) are necessary to continue operations, such as contracts, leases and insurance records; (d) would require massive resources to reconstruct, such as tax records; or (e) are necessary to restore order and community after a disaster, such as identity records and historical documents.

Identify Essential Records

Only a small percentage of government records (as little as 3 percent by some estimates) are essential during a disaster. It is important to identify these before a crisis so that you don’t waste time and effort rescuing records that are nonessential.

May Day:
The Society of American Archivists wants archivists and other professionals to take the time to do something simple to save archives each year on May 1.

The longer the duration of the disaster, the greater the number of records that become essential. Leases may not be essential during a disaster that lasts a few days or weeks, but they may be if the disaster stretches on for months. CIOs also must be able to account for essential records of other agencies that are stored on their servers. Those agencies may assume that you’re able to protect and restore them during a disaster. Require agencies to identify essential records that sit on centralized servers and make the policy regarding protection and restoration of those records clear. This will prevent confusion and recrimination when disaster strikes.

Protect Essential Records

Electronic data and media are more robust than many people suppose, but their recovery costs — in terms of money and cost — can be significant. After a disaster, you may find that your essential records can be recovered but the cost is prohibitive or the value of the records declines significantly during the time it takes to recover them. The solution is to protect your essential records before disaster strikes.

Create a plan to ensure the duplication and safe storage of your essential records. Duplication schedules should be tailored to the importance of the record and the frequency with which it changes. Even once-a-day backup may not be adequate for transactional data. For selected data, consider multiple daily backups or even continuous automatic backup through a service provider. Other records may need to be backed up only monthly, annually or even less frequently.

Copies need to be stored in a location that prevents their theft, alteration, or destruction — and far enough away from the originals to protect them even during a widespread disaster. Remember, too, that your backup tapes are useful only if you have the hardware and software to read them. Identify these in your Continuity of Operations Plan. If you use a managed backup service, your data may be available to you via the web from any location.

Carry Out COOP

Protecting essential records is just one part of a larger disaster response plan that is outlined in a continuity of operations plan (COOP) and other emergency documents. Verify that these plans include contact information for professionals who might help you recover records and computer data damaged during a disaster. Your state archives and records management (ARM) program can normally provide you with a list of such contacts. To find your state’s ARM, visit

A Helping Hand

A report from the Council of State Archivists’ Local Government Archives Task Force identifies the following challenges facing local government archives:

Launched in 2008, the Intergovernmental Preparedness for Essential Records (IPER) project delivers training to state and local governments about how to protect records before, during and after disasters and other emergencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded $2.6 million to the Council of State Archivists for the three-year project to protect state and local government records.

The curriculum places special emphasis on records that are essential for the resumption of government operations. IPER webinars and self-directed modules will focus on Essential Records, Records Emergency Planning and Response and Introduction to Records Management.

Obstacles Abound

A report from the Council of State Archivists’ Local Government Archives Task Force identifies the following challenges facing local government archives:

  • There is a lack of standards about what constitutes adequate or sufficient care of local government archives.
  • Records management is not a priority of local government leaders.
  • The federal government’s role is poorly defined and not recognized.
  • There is a fairly high turnover of town, city and county clerks.
  • Local government archives may lack the influence or lobbying expertise to effect major improvement.
Apr 07 2009