Disasters in a records management context involve situations that could cause irrevocable damage to an institution’s records. As far as both paper and computer records are concerned, disasters can range from a small fire setting off some sprinklers to the complete flooding of a basement where an organisation’s records are stored, to a slow leak into a vital records holding which ruins an important client’s records. The loss of such records may sound somewhat trivial, but the resulting legal action can potentially be catastrophic.
With a scientific consensus warning of higher ocean levels and changing weather patterns, the likelihood of water damage occurring in the future will increase, especially in the UK.
For an organisation to quickly get back up and running successfully after a disaster, it is exceedingly helpful if there is already a plan in place. Various surveys have found that the chances of an organisation’s survival without an adequate recovery plan are marginal at best. Thus planning should come before a disaster rather than after it. Though preparing a vital records strategy is important for the risk management of disasters, deciding how best to prepare for recovery in the event of a disaster is of no less vital concern.
Plans must be made! Writing up a clear and simple step by step disaster recovery plan will make insurance houses happy. Instructions ought to include strategies from the discovery of the disaster to the preparation of a final report. Try using one of these disaster response and recovery plans; many can easily be adapted for your records management facilities’ use.
It is important that the disaster plan complements, and is supported by, any goals and disaster plans of the organisation as a whole – in other words, the priorities of the records manager must concur with the goals of senior management. Liaising with security to ensure any water damage gets reported immediately or with senior management to ensure they don’t override the plan in the event of a disaster are both examples of where this point can require some proactive conduct.
One of the first things to do in developing such a plan is to involve the fire and civil defence departments. Their experience can show you the best procedures to follow, and the respect and trust that can ensue will also be invaluable. Building up a relationship with them will ensure they know where the most important records are held. This may involve drawing up a map of where the most important records holdings are kept, which will also come in useful when the time comes to prioritise the salvage operation.
Involving other staff in the disaster recovery plan planning will also derive many benefits, such as giving them a ‘preparedness’ mindset and the reaching of an organisation-wide consensus. A management team needs to be set up, which has responsibility for making decisions such as approving a salvage plan and a purchasing ability. Representatives from the organisation’s records, legal and accounting departments would be a helpful part of such a team. A second salvage team also needs to be arranged, with the task of recovering records. This second team will require people from departments with affected records, maintenance staff, the records manager, and an electrician, paramedic and plumber.
It is perhaps most advisable to appoint records managers as Disaster Recovery Directors, as they are required on both teams, and ought to have a sound knowledge of the organisation. We then need the name and cooperation of someone who should be called by the first person at the scene of a disaster. This appointed person can then ring 2-3 people and so on until all personnel are available. Once this has been agreed on, it is time to write out the details of the plan, like who will be responsible for getting the fans in; ensuring all contingencies are covered, and how to manage if someone is unavailable or looters and pillagers arrive. Detailed procedures for recovering from different levels of disaster should be included.
Snap rehearsals come next, with only the Director and perhaps security knowing of likely time-frames if everything goes smoothly, the planning went well. Chances are it won’t though, so it is the best opportunity to iron out the flaws and hone it to ensure a fast-acting response to any eventuality that may occur.
The purchase of disaster equipment is also something to bear in mind. It may be pertinent to place a secure and mobile box – such as a padlocked wheelie bin – near the vital records containing such items as face masks (to protect from mould spores), torches, disposable camera, clipboards, freezer bags, whistles, sponges, polythene sheeting, buckets, waterproof pens, squeegee mops, paper towels, tape and chalk.
It is also desirable to ensure bulkier equipment, such as freeze drying facilities, equipment to make wind tunnels for air-drying, pumps to evacuate the water, heavy-duty vacuum cleaners, dehumidifiers and two-way radios are available. This may require ringing around hire centres or networking with other information centres in your area. The National Archives or their local representative should also be sourced, as they will provide free advice and may provide extra staff and equipment. Once found, the contact numbers for each can be appended to the plan.
The resumption of service, even if only limited, as soon as practicable will also be of critical importance to ensure that goodwill is maintained with the organisation’s customers. This may include a hotline or retrieval service for customers and staff requiring records or information, or a temporary site to work from during the crisis. Having the right information before a disaster occurs, such as the contact to set up a hotline and the budget required for that will speed up its implementation.
Once the plan is written up, it’s time to shop around for one insurance company and over-insure your organisation. Compensation for over-payment can be made at the end of the financial year. Then badger them about who they will appoint as an assessor and how much money they are willing to spend on your organisation’s recovery. Having this knowledge will give peace of mind to the person writing the cheques as well as the people helping out with the salvage. The insurance company will also require information regarding the possible loss of profits as a result of the a disaster, so accurate figures regarding potential losses should be part of the vital records plan. But I’m digressing.
To sum up, the importance of a well-publicised and effective recovery plan cannot be over-emphasised. Just as vital records are regularly updated, so too must the recovery plan to ensure a cohesive agenda that will ensure the survival of the organisation. Replacing the camera, re-training staff, and checking the equipment and contact lists do not take much effort and will all ease pressures should a cataclysm eventuate.
Looking into the future, it is likely that more networking between information organisations geographically close to one another will occur to ensure adequate resources are available in the event of a disaster. For example, a group of information organisations in Adelaide, Australia have recently banded together to run a co-operative store that houses disaster equipment. Knowledge that can be gleaned from such a community will hopefully be greater than that of any single individuals, and so networking like this will ensure more contingencies are considered, which ultimately will mitigate any devastation.