Wildfire Records Preparation and Recovery

By Bret Adams and Angela Ossar, Government Information Analysts

Central Texas has endured record-setting temperatures for weeks this summer, and is now receiving national attention as numerous devastating wildfires sweep across the landscape.

Protecting government records from a large-scale disaster such as wildfires is a matter of planning. We offer below a refresher on the basics of emergency preparedness, as well as what to do should disaster strike.

Fire Safety Regulations for Records Storage Facilities

Protecting records against a fire comes down to storing them properly. For guidance on protecting records against fire, we turn to the National Archives and Records Administration. Section 1234.12 of the Code of Federal Regulations includes fire safety regulations for storage facilities. Some of these regulations include:

  • The facility must have fire detection and protection systems in place, and the systems must be designed or reviewed by a licensed fire protection engineer.
  • The facility must provide fire barrier walls that meet certain specifications, such as: any existing facility must have one-hour-rated fire barrier walls between the records storage areas and other auxiliary spaces; penetrations in the walls must not reduce the specified fire resistance ratings; and the fire resistive rating of the roof must be a minimum of 1/2 hour for all records storage facilities, or must be protected by an automatic sprinkler system.
  • Openings in fire barrier walls separating records storage areas must be avoided to the greatest extent possible.
  • Boiler rooms or generator rooms in existing facilities must be separated from records storage areas by 2-hour-rated fire barrier walls with no openings directly from these rooms to the records storage areas.
  • Hazardous materials, including records on cellulose nitrate film, must not be stored in records storage areas.

For more information on federal storage requirements (beyond fire protection), see: http://www.archives.gov/about/regulations/part-1234.html.

Basics of Emergency Preparedness

What is recommended to mitigate a disaster like wildfires?

First off, think of what documents you need to protect:  your essential records (aka vital or “business critical” records), permanent records, and those with sensitive or confidential information. If you are prepared for a disaster, you’ll take comfort in knowing that your essential records are backed up and properly stored offsite, that your permanent records are backed up on paper or microfilm (the most durable and reliable media for long-term storage and preservation), and your records containing sensitive or confidential data are protected.

Next, you’ll want to refer to your organization’s COOP plan (also called an emergency management plan or disaster plan).  The COOP plan should include a Records Emergency Action Plan (REAP) — a written, approved, implemented, and periodically tested plan that includes the information and actions needed to respond to and recover from a records emergency.  The REAP should have your essential records identified, including their medium and location, and procedures for protecting and/or relocating them.

Remember that during a disaster or emergency, you will have limited time and resources to access your records (especially your essential ones), so it’s extremely important to prioritize which ones need to be accessed and when they need to be accessed–“access priority.”  Priority 1 records are those records you’ll need within the first 12 hours (e.g., emergency plans, delegations of authority, maps and building plans); Priority 2 records are those records you’ll need in the first 12-72 hours (e.g., payroll, deeds, medical records); Priority 3 records are those records you’ll need after the first 72 hours (e.g., tax records, EEO files, contracts).  Then think about where those records are located:  Are they in fireproof and waterproof cabinets, safes, or vaults?  Will you evacuate or transfer them to an off-site location?  If so, what records will be evacuated?  Where will you evacuate them to?  How will you get them there?  When will you move them?  How will they be stored, managed, and accessed at the new site?  Such things need to be determined well in advance and be part of your COOP plan.

Recovery from a Fire

As far as recovery from a fire, you may have not only fire damage but also water damage from the first responders who will be trying to control and extinguish the fire.  You should contact a local records recovery expert and find out if your records can be salvaged.  If they cannot be salvaged, document the damaged/lost records on your disposition log as you would for normal disposition of your records.  If those records are not on a TSLAC-approved retention schedule, or are permanent records, you must officially notify us of the incident using a Form RMD 102 (State Agencies) or SLR 501 (Local Governments).  Include a brief description of the incident, the extent of the damage, and what steps or measures you have implemented to prevent or mitigate recurrence of similar incidents.

You may also want to refer to our previous blog articles, What to Do About Water Damaged Records and How to Recover Records Damaged by Mold.