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Chapter 10:

Everyone hopes that a disaster - natural or man-made - doesn't strike our homes or workplaces. But West Virginia does have a history of disasters: floods, fires, hurricanes, and, as well, computer viruses, theft, and vandalism. Disasters cannot always be prevented, but everyone can take steps to assure their homes and businesses are as protected from them as possible, and can certainly take measures to recover from them quickly in case they do occur.

Even though "disaster" is a word that generally connotes large-scale destruction, disasters can come about from everyday problems. Leaky roofs and pipes, for instance, can take significant tolls on records. A single soaked box of records can spell disaster if the information is valuable and irretrievable.

The purpose of this chapter is to offer guidelines for disaster planning. Included are a few "quick tips," some suggestions for setting up a disaster plan, requirements for the handling of vital records, and advice on how to garner support for disaster prevention efforts.

Quick Tips for Disaster Prevention

In the event of a disaster, electronic equipment should not be used until examined by professionals, as any damage to that equipment could cause further harm to records.

The creation of backups and/or careful attention to the migration of electronic records when new software is installed on office computers is critical in the prevention of the loss of data.

Creating a Disaster Plan

A disaster plan outlines the measures an office needs to take to be prepared in case a disaster strikes. The outlines of a plan are given below. It is important to remember that in the event of a disease pandemic, a nuclear attack, a terrorist action, or other disaster that affects a wide area of West Virginia and/or other states, everyone will need to follow local and national civil defense officials' instructions. Some functions, businesses, buildings and equipment might be nationalized for the common health and welfare of the State of West Virginia or a wider area. This may be a temporary or even long-term condition. However, if all other precautions to care for the "official memory" of each county of West Virginia are taken, the records, and their prominent place in returning government operations and services to conditions prior to such a disaster, will be preserved.

There are three objectives for establishing a disaster preparedness plan:

  1. The identification of vital and other valuable records critical to the functioning of the government office or agency. Vital records are defined as those that are essential for conducting business, e.g., certain operational records, payroll records and fiscal records. Once vital records are identified, special efforts must be taken to ensure they are protected or duplicated before a disaster occurs.
  2. The identification of structural, logistical or other vulnerabilities to which office records and information are exposed, and the mitigation of as many of these as possible. For example, if records must be stored in areas where water damage from pipes or mechanical equipment is possible, a staff discussion about what can be done to protect them should prove useful.
  3. The creation of a viable plan to implement in the event a disaster occurs. The plan should be practical, clear, supported by management and distributed to all those who would be expected to respond to a disaster (e.g., staff members, local Department of Emergency Services offices, local police and fire departments, and any cooperating local offices or agencies).

Handling Vital Records

Some records under the care of West Virginia's public employees are vital records. Vital records typically include birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates, but they may also include records such as payment vouchers, active personnel and payroll records, bills, and board minutes. By definition, vital records contain information crucial for daily operations of an office, and are often marked as active files. They should constitute approximately three to five percent of the average records found in all government offices.

Without vital records, business operations would virtually come to a halt and the public interest would be adversely impacted. Vital records are those without which it would be difficult - if not impossible - to continue to fill the purposes for which the office housing them exists. Further, the loss of its vital records makes a government office:

Vital Records Protection

Two methods are used to secure the safety of the vital records of all businesses, from banks to healthcare facilities to government offices. They are duplication and dispersal, and they are usually used in tandem.

Duplicates, where practical, should be stored for security purposes at a secure, off-site location. Duplicates can be carbon copies, paper copies, microfilmed images, optical disk data, etc., but they must be true representations of the original. During the development phase of a disaster plan, office personnel will want to ask whether or not the records that are considered vital can be found or recreated from other data that is available in other locations already. If so, that should be noted so that in the event of a disaster, the records can be duplicated, even if it will be a labor-intensive task.

The Politics of Budgeting for Disaster Prevention

In some areas, elected officials may prefer to avoid disaster planning. Disaster control costs money and only rarely produces tangible rewards, so there is little immediate incentive. Frequently, money is not budgeted for disaster control until after disaster strikes -- after a flood destroys valuable records stored in a basement, or after a fire decimates vital records that lack fire-proof shelving.

There are at least two ways of garnering financial support for disaster prevention. One involves describing the consequences of disaster, sharing others' experiences of inadequate planning and what happened when the fire truck beat them to work one morning. Another involves describing the benefits and advantages of disaster prevention measures. It is important to remember that no one plans for a disaster to happen, but happen they do. Although it is not easy to do, everyone who has control over the public's records has a moral and often fiduciary responsibility to provide the best care for them possible. Disasters (ranging from the loss of a single record, to the loss of office functions, to the loss of a building, to a nuclear attack) will without doubt:

The benefits and advantages of a good disaster prevention program include:

As the disaster plan is being discussed and budget monies are being allocated for it, the best question for elected officials and employees to ask is, what is the cost of doing nothing versus the cost of doing something? Disasters happen, and happen frequently.

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Created 2 September 2003
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Records Management and Preservation Board