David Darrah gasped quietly when he saw workers remove the melted hulk of what used to be a bulldozer. The equipment had been consumed by a massive fire in an underground storage complex in Kansas City, Mo.
The same complex housed Darrah’s microfilm backup records.
Darrah, director of Ameritas Life Insurance Corporation’s facilities/record center, traveled to the storage complex from the company’s Lincoln, NE, headquarters to learn the fate of the company’s records. The fire, which started in mid-December 1991, in the food storage area of the 70-acre complex, raged for five months. Three additional months were required to allow the complex to cool.
Ameritas had 19,400 rolls of microfilm in the storage facility--all of the company’s backup records.
For Nancy Sanford, Ameritas’ records center supervisor, waiting eight months was a nightmare.
"It was nerve-wracking," she says. "When I heard what had happened, it was just total disbelief. They kept saying they didn’t know the condition of our records because they couldn’t get in there."
The film is used as backup for the company’s main microfilm library, which include records of all policy holders, group administration files, human resource files, credit union files, accounting--everything that makes up the company. If a microfilm roll or jacket is lost or accidentally destroyed, a replacement roll is made from the backup.
In mid-August 1992, the microfilm records were brought out of the cave. Even though the film had been in a separate and sealed vault, intense heat from the fire had penetrated to singe the boxes.
Heat and water damage were the two main concerns.
"There weren’t many water stains on the blackened boxes," Darrah recalls. "Most of the water came from the humidity brought on by dousing the fire. The high humidity retained by the cave filtrated underneath the doors."
Six months prior to the start of the fire, Sanford learned of Kodak’s disaster recovery service when two Kodak officials inspected Ameritas’ in-house microfilming lab. Since the lab met the standards, the film was eligible for the service.
"We were told everything would be done to restore the film no matter what happened to it," Sanford recalls. "I thought it sounded great, but that we probably wouldn’t ever need it. And I honestly didn’t think we ever would. It’s one of those things you don’t think will ever happen to you."
When the storage complex was opened after the fire, Ameritas called Kodak, who inspected a few rolls to get a preliminary determination of the extent of the damage. The film was beginning to stick together. To prevent further coagulation, every box was shrink-wrapped to keep it moist. The entire load was transported by refrigerated truck to a recovery lab.
Darrah was given a 50-50 chance of recovery. Each roll was washed and cleaned separately, then inspected to determine what other treatments could be taken.
A little more than three months after the film was trucked to the recovery lab, it arrived at Ameritas’ headquarters.
Operators examined the front, middle and end of each of the more than 19,000 rolls of restored film to ensure all of the information was intact and legible.
Viewing each roll was a lengthy process, but one Ameritas was glad to be doing. The alternative was much worse.
If the film had been lost, the company had only two choices. The first was to continue as if nothing had happened, and hope a backup copy would never be needed. Ameritas would never do business that way. Furthermore, that strategy was dangerous, because it presumed that the remaining records would be safe from disaster. The backup files had proved no site is totally safe.
The other plan was to painstakingly make duplicate backup files which would prove timely and very costly.
All microfilm on-site prior to 1989 is in jackets. In 1989, a CAR (computer assisted retrieval) system was installed, which uses cartridge-encased film. Because of this switch, Ameritas could make duplicate rolls.
However, documents contained in microfilm jackets could not be designed to make microfilm duplicates. If the backup film was not recoverable, paper copies of each jacket would have to be made and then refilmed.
“The idea of losing our backup would have put us in a poor situation,” Sanford said.
"Ameritas has been microfilming in-house since 1977. A film-based records system has proven invaluable to the smooth operation of the company," Sanford says.
When the company switched to in-house microfilming, paper documents packed the building with floor-to-ceiling open shelving. The company spent three years converting paper documents to microfilm.
“What that did for space and security reasons was tremendous,” she says. “And we’ve grown so much since then. We need all the space we can muster.”
Ameritas is now expanding its document management to include electronic imaging, which will allow employees even faster access to records.
For Sanford, the fire has reinforced the need for backup. And it has confirmed the importance of good document management practices.
“Most people in our building don’t even know there was a disaster,” she says. “As long as they can get their records here, they don’t care. But for us, who are responsible for the records, it really was a frightening experience.”
Robert Salmon is a public relations representative for the Eastman Kodak Company.