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Before disaster strikes: Why you should care about essential record preservation

As many as 3,000 criminal cases were abruptly suspended in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina bore down on that city in 2005. When the storm had passed, prosecutors returned to damaged records and evidence, and many of those cases never went to trial. Essential records—paper and electronic—impact our lives in tangible ways, and CIOs have a vital role to play in identifying and safeguarding essential records in state and local governments everywhere.

What are Essential Records?

Essential records help government agencies continue functioning in the middle of natural or human-caused disasters; they protect the rights of citizens; and they do much more. Every government agency produces at least some essential records, which can be put into five broad categories:

Clearly, state and local governments create a wide variety of essential records. In a disaster of brief duration, few of these records might be considered essential, but as the disaster period lengthens, more records become essential. Preparing for disasters means planning for both brief and lengthy disruptions.

What Threatens Essential Records?

From building fires to terrorist attacks, disasters can be localized or widespread. Broken water pipes or wind-damaged roofs may destroy records within a single building, while landslides, earthquakes, wildfires, and chemical spills can threaten a wider area. Floods, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks may devastate an entire region. The loss of records can threaten the health and safety of residents and cripple their efforts to restore their lives once the immediate crisis passes. At such times, residents turn to their government to help protect and stabilize their lives. The CIO plays a vital role in that task.

Why Do Essential Records Matter to the CIO?

First, you produce essential records. Certain records are essential for the CIO to continue operations during an emergency. Identifying and protecting your agency’s own essential records should be a top priority. Documentation of major computer systems, or contracts for computer services, may be among your agency’s essential records. In addition, your agency may create or care for records that would require massive effort to re-create. The loss of tax assessments or geographic information systems, for instance, may devastate your government and its ability to recover after a disaster.

Second, every agency you serve produces essential records. It is likely that you manage records for other agencies, and many of these records may be essential. You may be responsible for records that protect the life, health, and safety of citizens or enable other agencies to keep functioning during an emergency. Your client agencies assume that you are protecting their records and will keep them available during a crisis. You are a vital component in their plan to function effectively throughout a disaster.

Third, you are part of the solution to your government’s problem.

Information technology professionals have a long history of planning for data center recovery, so they normally have more experience related to business continuity than their counterparts in other government agencies. Your expertise can benefit your colleagues. Conversion of essential paper records to electronic form can simplify the task of duplicating and protecting such records before disaster strikes. The agencies in your government need your help to make that conversion happen.

What Should You Do?

Airline safety announcements warn us to “put your own mask on first” if the oxygen mask drops from the ceiling. It is difficult to help other agencies if your own agency’s essential records have not been identified and protected. You should begin by surveying your own records and asking which would be most essential to continued operations in the event of a disaster. Essential records should be duplicated and stored far enough away from the originals—100 miles or more—to protect them in the event of even a widespread disaster.
Then, help agencies prioritize. Since electronic records are easier to duplicate and store off site than paper records, you should help your agencies convert essential paper records to electronic form. If your agency approves requests for resources, give higher priority to digitization or software projects that involve essential records. Make essential records part of your enterprise planning and approval process by asking agencies to identify essential records—and their plans to safeguard them—in every new or upgraded system. Helping other agencies prioritize their records helps you prioritize your response in the event of a disaster. As systems are brought back online incrementally, you can give highest priority to the government’s most essential records.

Where to Get Help?

Every state and local government has access to resources that can help it identify and protect essential records. Your state archivist and records manager is a good source of information and assistance. Visit the Council of State Archivists at to find contact information for your state archives and records management agency. National organizations, such as Heritage Preservation, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators, and ARMA International provide assistance, as well. During 2009 and 2010, the Council of State Archivists, in cooperation with FEMA, will conduct a national “Intergovernmental Preparedness for Essential Records (IPER)” project to provide training to state and local governments to identify and protect essential records. For more information, visit 

David W. Carmicheal is the director of the Georgia Division of Archives and History and is overseeing the Council of State Archivist’s FEMA-funded grant project, “Intergovernmental Preparedness for Essential Records.” He can be reached at

Published in Public Safety IT, Nov/Dec 2008

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