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Summer Journal

Volume 27, Issue 3

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The Harsh Reality of a Disaster To Vital Records

Contingency plans are the most valuable documents in your operational files, but when an actual loss occurs, having a good working knowledge of what the ‘real life’ scenario will be, makes the difference in succeeding in your business resumption and minimizing the loss. Knowing how to turn off the water that is flooding your work areas, record center or library, and knowing that the backup computer data is stored in an offsite location, gives a nice warm comfortable feeling - BUT - when the firemen are pushing water and debris out the front door and the debris is work in progress, archival documents or books that cannot be replaced - the resolve to trust your contingency plan receives the first severe test.

When a plan is being written, you’re dealing with a room that is quiet, comfortable air-conditioned and well lighted. The true facts when the loss occurs are that the lights and air-conditioning are no longer working due to a ‘no-power’ situation. The only noise you hear is the water falling from the light fixtures and the ceiling tile falling into the pile of research papers, financial documents, corporate records, certificates, patient medical records, engineering specs, work in progress or books, etc. that are already on the floor. The scene is grim, and heart stopping doubt and panic begin to creep in. Make a plan - practice your plan, and when a catastrophe strikes, WORK YOUR PLAN. For over 40 years, we have had the opportunity to study disasters first hand and the one common similarity with all of them is that no one ever really believes that they are going to have a fire or flood. They think that if they ever do have a loss, they will simply declare an ‘alert’ and going offsite will completely take care of the entire situation.

Recent actual loss cases, whether they have been due to fire, water, contamination, flood or other weather induced situations all have common similarities in that although there was a contingency plan in effect, the plan itself never addressed the recovery of the facility or the documents housed therein. In addition, there has usually been no prioritization of documents, inventories are non-existent in most cases, and the most important questions necessary for the recovery have not even been addressed.

NOW is the time to address these issues, issues such as the following:

How are you going to move the files out of the disaster area? Even if the fire is floors above the record center area itself, the firemen are going to be putting a lot of water on a major fire situation and that water will work itself down throughout your building and sometimes to that record room. How does the configuration of your building affect the quick and efficient movement of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of documents out of the damaged area?

What are you going to do with all of the boxes of documents which were to be micro-filmed that are now sitting on the floor soaking wet, or the same documents which have been micro-filmed and are now sitting on the floor waiting to be put back on the shelves ? Picture all these boxes having burst open, now filled with crushed and broken ceiling tile and their contents floating on a sea of debris.

How are you going to control the environment housing these documents when there are no lights, air-conditioning, windows that can be opened, and every minute in this wet, humid atmosphere increases record damage through mold and mildew?

Has every department in your corporation prioritized and inventoried their documents for retrieval in the event a loss occurs and these documents need to be physically removed to a restoration site? In most cases, there is no inventory of what is in each room except the files themselves, and although they may be in numerical order, there may be many undocumented gaps in that order. Also, in most cases, the priority items are the ones being micro-filmed, shipped or filed and these are usually on the floor soaking wet or charred from the fire.

Where will you move a record center that is already overcrowded, from a building that is already damaged? The same space probably won’t be usable for months. Are you going to try and stay in the same building or the same area?

If you have to move to a fairly distant location, how will that move impact the attitude of your key people? Do you really need to move the record center? What would happen if you didn’t move? Remember, if you do not address these questions in advance, and a loss occurs, you will be thinking of these answers as you watch the ink begin to run, pages begin to stick together, and the loss of vital data and ‘originals’ taking place. Certain items such as micro-film and fiche that are wet, need to stay wet.

Photographs and vellum items need immediate extra special care.

In dealing with paper, you have about 12 hours before the mold and mildew, which cause the damage, begin to grow.

It is, many times, at least 12 hours or more before you can even get back into your building to assess the damage, so how will being evacuated from your building for several days affect your plan?

What if you have a hazardous material loss at your building, and your work in progress, record center documents, archival items and books are contaminated with asbestos, PCB’s, etc.? What kind of plan do you have for this possible situation?

How will you have the necessary document restoration procedures of blast freezing, dehumidifying or true freeze-drying accomplished when necessary?

In addition, once you have addressed these vital and real life areas of concern, if a loss should happen, who is going to assist you, or handle the document restoration process itself?

Who in your corporation can sign the contract with the restoration specialist in this emergency situation?
How well does that corporate individual understand ‘your’ concerns and priorities?

Efficiency is a key word in today’s business world, but in the document restoration business, ideal working conditions, undamaged equipment and time just don’t exist.


Written by Pat Williams Moore and Larry Wood of BMS Catastrophe, Inc.

This article adapted from Vol. 2 No. 4, p. 17.

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