What Are Essential Records?

Essential records, also known as vital records or mission-critical records, are the records necessary for responding to an emergency or disaster; necessary to resume or continue operations; that protect the health, safety, property, and rights of residents/citizens; that would require an enormous amount of resources to reconstruct; and that document the history of communities and families. The essential functions of your organization determine what records are essential. These may include:

Records necessary for emergency response

Emergency Evacuation Plan

  • Emergency and/or Continuity of Operations (COOP) Plan {How do you respond to a fire, water pipe leak, bomb threat, etc.}
  • Maps and building plans {Where is your computer server room located in relation to the area of your facility that’s flooded, for example? What of emergency routes to and from your primary and alternate facility?}
  • Emergency contact information {How do you contact various members of your staff via phone or e-mail; or foot, if lines of communication are down?}

Records necessary to resume or continue operations


  • Payroll {How will you continue to pay your staff?}
  • Prison, jail, and parole records {When is someone eligible for parole?}
  • Insurance records {What are the details and limits of the coverage for your agency and your staff?}
  • Orders of succession and delegations of authority {Who will be in charge if your manager or director is unavailable? Who is authorized to make personnel or purchase decisions?}
  • Contracts and leases {What provisions do your vendors have to support you during and following a disaster or emergency?}

Records necessary to protect the health, safety, property, and rights of residents

Medical Records

  • Birth and marriage records {Can you still provide proof of someone’s birth or marriage?}
  • Deeds, mortgages, land records {Shows ownership and details of property}
  • Medical records {What treatment or medications do people require?}

  • Active court proceedings
  • Education and military service records {Often required for insurance or employment}
  • Professional licenses  {Show when someone needs recertification and what specific task or job a person is qualified to perform}
  • Voting records {Who’s registered to vote? What were the results of the election? Who ran?}
  • Social security records
  • Retirement records

Records that would require an enormous amount of resources to reconstruct

  • Tax records {Federal, state, local paid and due}

Records that document the history of communities and families

Historical photograph of a town square, undated

  • Historical documents  {The Constitution or a town charter, for example}
  • Identity records
  • Photographs {Those of ancestors, buildings, events, for example}

Typically less than five percent of governmental records are actually essential.  The value of the record during an emergency or disaster is what makes the record essential.  As disruption time (the length of time your operations are stopped or disrupted) increases, more records become essential.  Records can be in many different media or formats such as paper, microfilm, or electronic.

For more training in identifying your office’s essential records, sign up for our free June 2, 2011 webinar, “Identifying Essential Records.” (State agencies click here; local governments click here.)

Article content adapted from the FEMA pamphlet Vital Records Awareness – An Overview and content in the Intergovernmental Preparedness for Essential Records courses developed by the Council of State Archivists (CoSA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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