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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    June 01, 2003

    Managing Risk: 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.

    Ann Massie Nelson

    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 76, No. 6, June 2003

    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     NelsonAnn 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 records.

    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," he says.

    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?
    • 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
      • Tarpaulins
      • Duct tape
      • Clothesline or nylon fishing line
      • Paper towels
      • Heavy-duty garbage bags
      • Cleaning supplies
      • Tool kit
      • Phone book
      • Transistor radio
      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?
    • 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 endorsement.
    • 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 plan.2
    • 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 your own.
    • 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 services.
    • 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 for details.

      Assess damage and classify records for recovery. Color code files with color tape, markers, chalk, or paper tags with wire holders.

      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 disposed.

    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.


    1See Ann Massie Nelson, "Managing Records Effectively," 76 Wis. Law. 22 (April 2003).

    2For information about disaster recovery planning, see Ann Massie Nelson, "Disaster Recovery Plan Can Help You Manage Risk," 74 Wis. Law. 33 (Dec. 2001).

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