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Vital records are irreplaceable records which your agency needs to perform its primary mission. They contain the information needed to continue or re-establish an organization's operations following a disaster.
An agency's vital records document its legal or fiscal position and preserve rights of the agency, its employes, and citizens. Vital records are irreplaceable or would be too expensive to replace. Some records may need to be kept in their original form to be admissible as legal evidence.
A vital records program is a cost-effective way to control the risk of loss to one of your agency's most valuable assets. An effective vital records program will ensure that your organization will be able to function with a minimum of difficulty following a disaster.
A vital records program can:
A vital records program is what you would wish you had — after the building burns and all your records are destroyed!
A vital records program is a critical element and an integral part of a comprehensive records management system. Yet even by itself, vital records management is a cost effective strategy because it is a form of self-insurance.
To be successful your vital records program must be approached from a corporate perspective to ensure that only the truly vital records and information receive special protection. Direction and support must be provided by top management. The agency records officer is in an ideal position to assume responsibility for the program, having both an agency perspective and an intimate knowledge of agency records. With the support of agency management, the records officer can develop a program which protects the interests of the agency, is effective and easy to manage. Program managers should be responsible for the vital records in their program area.
There are three basic elements of a vital records program:
The remainder of this chapter will explain how to perform each of these steps.
If the agency has an approved records retention schedule, it can be used to identify vital records. If not, the agency's records should be inventoried and scheduled. To accomplish this process contact the Oregon State Archives, Information Resources Management Unit, or your agency's records officer.
Top management should identify the agency's essential functions and the specific records which would be needed to continue or re-establish those essential functions during and following a disaster. Essential functions are those that are critical to the organization's primary mission. The vital records are those records which the agency must have to perform the critical elements of its primary mission. This process should produce a vital records master list.
This assessment must be as objective as possible. The records officer and program managers must work with all areas of the agency to determine who has the record copy of vital records and who has copies. Close coordination can eliminate useless duplication.
Levels of value may be assigned as follows:
A common rule of thumb is that 5-10% of an agency's records may qualify as vital. If more than 10% of the agency's records are designated as vital, the evaluation process should be examined.
The success of the program depends on the combined judgment and foresight of top management, program managers and records management. The resulting master list of vital records should be reviewed by the agency's legal counsel and auditors.
After identifying your vital records, the risks and hazards to those records must next be evaluated.
A vital records program is a form of insurance. Risk management is a way to control and minimize risks. You can't eliminate all risks and hazards to your records but you can make better decisions before a disaster than during the chaos and pressure of an emergency.
Protection for your vital records will cost something. Costs of implementing and maintaining the program must be compared with costs of recovery from a disaster.
These costs will vary greatly, of course, depending on such variables as the agency mission, location, and type of records. For the program to be cost effective the consequences of losing certain records must outweigh the costs of protecting and preserving them. If you can replace certain records for less than it would cost to preserve them - they probably aren't vital.
Risk assessment should examine the following areas:
By identifying and eliminating as many of the hazards as possible, you can reduce your exposure and the risk of a disaster to your records and assure that your agency will be able to continue to function reliably. Once the vital records are identified and the various risks analyzed and minimized the last step is to decide on economical and effective methods of protection.
The three most common methods of protecting vital records are:
There are two basic types of duplication, each of which may involve dispersal. The first type involves preparing extra copies when the record is created. The second is to reproduce existing records for the sole purpose of protection.
This duplication may be done by various processes, such as photocopying or micro-imaging. To maximize the cost benefit, use the copies for a purpose other than just protection, if possible.
Routine dispersal consists of having duplicate copies in a second location for normal business needs. Records are often distributed to other locations as part of regular operating procedure. Examples of this are information copies sent to branch offices and documents filed with other agencies. If you want to depend on this form of dispersal to protect your vital records in case of a disaster, the offices or agencies need to know that. Reliable arrangements must be made regarding retention and protection requirements. If records require special equipment to make the information available, such as a microfilm reader/printer, computer hardware and software--arrangements must be made in advance. This built-in, or routine dispersal of vital records is the least expensive method.
Improvised or planned dispersal is when an additional copy is created solely for protection. The copy is then sent to a vital records depository or other location for security. At the outset of a vital records protection program it may be necessary to duplicate all the existing documents.
Vaults, safes, file rooms, and fire-resistant cabinets and containers provide varying degrees of protection for vital records. They can be located in or near the office area.
Underwriters Laboratories has produced standards that rate the temperature and humidity levels records can undergo before deterioration. Paper can withstand 350 degrees Fahrenheit and 65% relative humidity, while magnetic and photographic media can only tolerate 150 degrees Fahrenheit and 85% relative humidity.
Vaults are very expensive to build but may be justified if the volume of records is high or the needs of the agency dictate this level of protection. In buildings with high fire risk, a vault may be the only way to protect records. Standard vault doors come with two, four, and six hour ratings.
Vaults resist fire, but they are not immune to water damage. Underground basement vaults are susceptible to water leakage from faulty plumbing, as well as from water used to extinguish fires.
While fire-proof safes do not give as much protection as vaults, they will resist fire for up to four hours. Safes are useful for small volumes of records and for locating the records close to the point of use.
File rooms and fire-resistant cabinets and containers naturally provide less protection than the heavily insulated walls and doors of vaults and safes. They are also less expensive.
Evaluate the risks associated with the loss of the information before investing in any of these on-site storage facilities or containers.
Off-site storage facilities can provide extra security and protection to original vital records and economical storage for those that are used very little. It is less likely that an off-site storage facility will be affected by the same disaster that occurs to your primary building. Unlike dispersal techniques where vital records may be distributed to a number of off-site locations, central off-site storage simplifies access. Also, off-site storage usually costs much less than active office space.
Whether the off-site facility is owned and operated by the organization itself, or by another agency or commercial firm, certain factors influence the choice of storing vital records in a remote location. The facility should be located away from high-risk areas, such as rivers, geological faults, coasts, volcanoes, and man-made structures which might pose a threat. The facility must be accessible to the organization during normal and emergency conditions.
Fire safety, atmospheric conditions, pest control, security, and technical services must be carefully evaluated. You may need a communication link between the normal office and the remote facility. Options include agency-owned storage, commercial records centers, and cooperative records centers.
Another alternative is the State Records Center. It provides remote storage, filing and retrieval service, and security at very low cost to the agency. Refer to Section 10, Storage, or call the Records Center at 503-373-1001 for more information.
The most important factor in choosing ways to protect your vital records is cost-effectiveness. Since relative security is all you can expect to achieve, the best choice is the one which most closely matches the cost of protection with the degree of risk.
Your agency will need written policies and procedures covering the use of Vital Records during daily activities, in emergencies, and after disasters. These procedures should cover at least the following areas:
Vital records policies should be communicated to the entire staff. The staff should be trained in emergency procedures so that everyone knows what to do when disaster strikes.
The agency should also have a plan for resuming operations following a disaster. This plan should be tested and exercised periodically.
A vital records program is a cost-effective way to control the risk of losing valuable assets. Your agency's vital records can't be replaced. They document essential functions which are critical to your primary mission. The vital records program should be an integral part of a comprehensive records management system. The program involves identifying the vital records, assessing and minimizing the risks to those records, then taking protective measures. All those efforts should be tied together by implementing agency-wide policies and training the staff in emergency procedures.
The need for a disaster salvage operation is inversely proportional to the extent that an organization's vital records are properly identified and protected.
An effective Vital Records program will ensure that your organization will be able to function with a minimum of difficulty following a disaster!
This guide focuses on Vital Records. No attempt has been made to address general disaster planning factors, such as life safety, communications, public order, sanitation, etc. For help in these areas contact Oregon State Police, Oregon Emergency Management Division, 503-378-4124.
For more information regarding records disaster planning see Introduction to Records Disaster Planning, Section 5.1.
Effective: January 1994
Adapted from the Oregon State Archives Records Management Manual (1994).