Vol. 76, No. 6, June
Act Quickly to Recover Damaged Records
Learn how to protect, recover, and restore vital
records in this second of a series of columns about records management
and disaster recovery.
by Ann Massie Nelson
Ann Massie Nelson is a
regular contributor to Wisconsin Lawyer and communications
director at Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co.
Tornado, flood, fire, faulty sprinklers, broken water pipes, and
undetected damage from ice dams, mold, mildew, insects, and other vermin
could damage or destroy your law firm's most valuable inventory - your
You have a responsibility to protect client confidentiality,
communicate, and provide competent representation, even when your paper
files are damaged, destroyed, or inaccessible.
Timothy Hughes, manager of records management at Madison Gas &
Electric Co. (MG&E) and an active member of the ARMA International
(the information management professionals association), recommends the
following steps to safeguard files.
Protect vital records
As noted in the previous article in this series,1 well-managed records will help you open your doors
for business sooner after a disaster.
- Scan or microfilm active or mission-critical files and store
the copies off site. Electronically storing all of
your closed files is probably unnecessary and unrealistic. Hughes says
vital records - defined as those essential for business to continue -
make up 3 to 15 percent of all records.
Microfilm is Hughes' preferred medium for high-volume, long-term
document storage. "Microfilm may be old-fashioned technology, but as
long as you have light and a magnifier, you can access the information,"
Microfilm eliminates concerns about "data migration," the challenge
of maintaining access to electronic data stored in formats that quickly
become obsolete. (Remember floppy disks?)
New technology is available that can simultaneously scan and
microfilm documents, providing both quick access and safe long-term
storage, Hughes says. (Learn more about how to manage electronic
documents in the August Wisconsin Lawyer.)
- Label or color code your vital files or file
cabinets so that active or vital records can be identified and
recovered first following a disaster. At MG&E, cabinets housing
vital records (such as maps showing natural gas lines to a home) are
labeled with a "V."
- Store paper files in metal cabinets that can be closed and
locked at the end of each workday. Make sure file storage is
above ground level and off the floor, where water damage is more likely
to occur. "Fireproof file cabinets are expensive, heavy, and offer very
little protection in a fire. They act like ovens," Hughes says.
- Contract in advance with a document recovery
service that has expertise and equipment for salvaging and
restoring paper documents. These services typically vacuum dry or vacuum
freeze-dry documents, either at their facility or in trucks parked
outside your building. Ask if the cost of "pack out," that is, packing
and removing damaged documents, is included.
- Evaluate the security of off-site records storage.
Is the facility staffed? Does it have a sprinkler system? Fire alarm?
How often are those systems tested? How are the temperature and humidity
controlled? What property insurance does the facility owner carry?
Review your property insurance coverage. Does your
business owners policy cover the building contents, as well as the
structure? Do you have business interruption insurance or extra expense
insurance? Does your insurance cover the expense of removing and
recovering destroyed and damaged files?
Disaster Recovery Kit - Suggested Items
This supply kit is adapted from "Disaster Recovery," a flier produced
by the Madison chapter of ARMA International.
- Flashlights and batteries
- Disposable cameras with flash
- Water-resistant color markers, labels, chalk, tape
- Rubber gloves and boots
- Protective eyewear
- Disposable face masks to cover nose, mouth
- Duct tape
- Clothesline or nylon fishing line
- Paper towels
- Heavy-duty garbage bags
- Cleaning supplies
- Tool kit
- Phone book
- Transistor radio
- Consider purchasing valuable papers insurance to
cover the cost of restoring or replacing valuable papers, such as client
files and operating records. This coverage typically is added by
- Keep a camera and film or video recorder and tape
handy to document property damage before clean-up begins.
- Develop a system for marking and prioritizing files for
recovery. Describe the system in your disaster recovery
- Keep a supply kit off site for recovering damaged
files. Your property insurance requires you to take steps to
prevent further damage from occurring after a loss. (See the
accompanying sidebar for a suggested supply list.)
- Identify freezer space where you can safely store damaged
files for possible recovery later. Freezing inhibits mold and
mildew growth and slows deterioration.
When disaster strikes
Your first concern should always be personal safety. No files or
other material possessions are worth the risk of injury to your staff or
you. In a communitywide disaster, employees' families and homes will
understandably be their first priority.
- Wait for permission to reenter the building.
Smoldering fire, falling debris, and high water levels clearly are
hazards; less obvious perils include downed wires, natural gas leaks,
and toxic chemical release. "At a disaster scene, the fire department is
in charge - not the police or utility," Hughes notes.
Call your property insurance agent to report the
damage. Your insurance company or agent may instruct you to
hire a professional cleaning or document recovery service and may be
able to arrange for repairs more quickly or affordably than you can on
- Document the damage. Once you regain access,
photograph or videotape the premises.
- Establish a command post and put a capable person
in charge of directing recovery efforts.
- Act quickly to freeze or recover vital records.
Water-damaged paper begins to mold, mildew, and disintegrate within
hours, according to Hughes.
- Contact a document recovery service. Look in the
phone book under "business documents and records-storage and
management." Widespread disaster will create a high demand for these
Assess damage and classify records for recovery. Color
code files with color tape, markers, chalk, or paper tags with wire
Recovering from Disaster
"Recovering from Disaster: Step by STEP" (Script, Train, Execute,
Process) is a morning-long continuing legal education seminar for
attorneys and staff that will be presented at four locations throughout
the state in fall 2003. The seminar will be submitted for CLE and ethics
credit approval. Call WILMIC at (800) 373-3839 or visit www.wilmic.com for details.
Black = Destroy - file is not salvageable
Red = Recover - file is vital to firm operations
Yellow = Freeze - recover only when needed
Green = Use - no recovery needed
- Remove unharmed and salvageable files from the
premises and protect them from further damage.
- List the destroyed records (if possible), including
the client or file name and when, why, how, and by whom the file was
Getting back to normal
Expect the upheaval after a disaster to last for weeks, months, or
longer. Replacing records and property is only part of the recovery
process. Temporary or new surroundings, different routines, apprehension
about repeat disasters, and frustration over lost information and time
will add to the normal stress of law practice. Give your staff - and
yourself - time to regain your equilibrium.
Massie Nelson, "Managing Records Effectively," 76 Wis. Law. 22 (April
about disaster recovery planning, see Ann Massie Nelson, "Disaster
Recovery Plan Can Help You Manage Risk," 74 Wis. Law. 33 (Dec. 2001). www.wisbar.org/wislawmag/2001/12/risk.html.