Identifying and Protecting Essential Records

Picture this: After a seventh consecutive day of raining, there are flood warnings for the surrounding area—a common problem for central Texas— and your government building is in the flood zone.  Does work need to carry on regardless of the conditions? How do you ensure business continues?

Imagine your office building has a suspected gas leak that cannot be immediately resolved. Can you alert everyone of the emergency? What if certain processes or projects must continue; do you have access to the necessary materials? joggle

The solution to the dilemmas created by sudden disruptions is essential records.

Essential records, or— if you work on the state agency side—vital records, are those that fall into one or more of the following categories.

Records necessary for:

        • Resuming or continuing government operations (in the event of an emergency or disaster);
        • Recreating the legal and financial status of a government; or
        • Protecting and fulfilling government’s obligations to the people of the state
          (Sec. 201.003(5); Sec. 441.180(13)).

Check out our other blog post, “What are Essential Records?” on examples of records for each of these categories!

The number and types of essential records for individual governments will vary and depends on the function and operation of the organization. Due to the likelihood of variance, a straight answer to the question, “What are our essential records?” does not exist.

Read on to learn more about deciphering essential and vital records for your government.

These records only serve their purpose if they are available when necessary. Because of this, there are three fundamental steps a government should take to ensure not only the accessibility of these records in the event they are needed, but also the reliability and accuracy of the information contained therein.


BinocularsBesides presenting the first logical step in managing essential records, the process of distinguishing these records is also required by law. Whether you work for a local government or a state agency, steps must be taken to identify essential records (for local governments) and vital records (for state agencies) (Sec. 203.002(4); Sec. 441.183(4)).

There are several tactics to employ for identifying essential records and like most recommendations, using one or more of these tactics in combination is your best bet.

Essential Functions

The first tactic is taking into account your government’s essential functions. All governments have business functions, of course, or else we would not exist, however some of these functions are essential.

Essential functions enable a government to:

  • Provide vital services;
  • Exercise civil authority;
  • Maintain safety and well-being of the general population; or
  • Sustain the area’s industrial economic base in an emergency (FEMA).

A solid process for separating general functions from essential is considering what tasks and operations must continue under all circumstances with little to no disruption.

Does your organization have any responsibilities that, if interrupted even more a short period of time, could end up compromising the ability to perform its objective?

Once you determine what essential functions your government fulfills, the records that support those functions will be essential records.


Next, consider your stakeholders. These key people require certain records and particular information in order to accomplish their job. Stakeholders include groups both within and outside your organization; utility providers, state record center, IT, HR.

Consulting with these groups broadens your potentially narrow considerations of essential records and involves others within or associated with the government with the process of identifying records.

Current Records

Hopefully if you’re reading this post it means you are current and up-to-date with your government’s records management practices because your records is the next tactic to identifying essential records.

When’s the last time you took a look at your inventory or updated your retention schedule? Take a look at our archived webinar on the inventory process.

An inventory of all records should be completed on a regular basis in order to keep the record retention schedule fresh and useful. During the inventory process is a key time to identify important documentation; confidential, long-term, and essential records.

Not only will this ensure the records appear on a retention schedule with an appropriate retention period and remarks, but you also know where these records are located within the office or perhaps off-site.

Statutes, Regulations, and Standards

Examining any statutes, regulations, and standards which apply to your government is the last recommended tactic to suss out these records. Normally these statutes and regulations will not address essential records specifically; however the assumption exists that a government will take action to protect the resources needed to meet legal and operational requirements, e.g. records.

An industry standard that applies to essential records is ANSI/ARMA 5-2010 Vital Records Programs: Identifying, Managing, and Recovering Business Critical Records. Keep in mind, this standard does cost money to access, which is why no requirement to adhere to the standard exists.


Essential records are no different from all other government records in that government bodies, both local and state, have a legal responsibility to protect records. This dynamic is similar to that of the previously mentioned business functions versus essential functions. All governments have records and a responsibility to protect these records exists, however essential records require extra consideration and protection because they are the records most necessary in the event of a business disruption of any magnitude.

General protection methods are:

  • Evacuation
  • Duplication
  • Dispersal
  • On-site Protection

Methods of protection you choose will vary depending on the format of the essential record and the accessibility timeframe.

For records of which the information contained is what is essential, the original can be stored off-site and the information can be duplicated in order to be accessible.

Duplication is the easiest to implement and a good way of remembering to duplicate is LOCKSS: Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe. When using this strategy remember to think in terms of varying formats. Don’t just make three copies of a paper document; make one electronic and store it on the shared drive. Other formats to create duplicate copies with are microform and system backup tapes/hard drive.

Dispersal is duplication, taken one step further. Make copies of important records and information and then send those copies elsewhere. A thorough examination of workflows and processes will come in handy here because there may be instances of routine dispersal already taking place. Routine dispersal means records are transmitted elsewhere as a part of normal course of business. For example, copies of birth and death certificates from across the state are sent to Vital Statistics in Austin.

For records you’re keeping on-site, a little bit of on-site protection will prevent small issues from becoming big problems. You can review our self-paced online class or attend one of our in-person class trainings to learn more about identifying risks and hazards and mitigating those in order to protect your building and assets.

If essential records are going to be kept on-site, planning to evacuate these records in the event of an emergency should be arranged. As the same suggests, evacuation as a protection strategy involves moving records to a second location away from damage and ensuring their viability.


Don’t let all this hard work go to waste and be forgotten at the first sign of a disaster or business disruption. It’s time to write it all down. A good place for this type of information to go is in your government’s emergency plan. We recommend that a portion of this plan is dedicated to the management of records as an action plan for how to proceed when an emergency occurs.

Make sure essential records are recorded in your retention schedule or in similar documentation.

If certain records located in different places need to be updated on a regular basis to ensure the information is current and applicable, record those procedures and make sure the appropriate people are aware and trained. This is especially important for records which were duplicated in protection efforts. Make sure each copy is updated when changes occur via a schedule or plan.

Comment below to share your experiences— successful and challenging— with identifying, protecting, and managing essential and vital records!

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