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Rescuing Your Vital Records

By Tracey McDonough


By having a game plan for recovery, knowing who to call for help, and taking some key steps before help arrives, recovery personnel stand a good chance of saving the records vital to the organization after a disaster.

Being Prepared

Recovery Priorities
Today, so much is restorable that the question is no longer what can we save but what is worthwhile to save. It is only cost-effective to restore items that can't be replaced or reproduced, or where originals are required by law. A recovery expert can confirm restorability and help set priorities.

Prior to a disaster, there should be at least a rudimentary game plan for the order of recovery. When multiple department records are damaged, conflicts will often arise at the disaster scene over whose records are most time-critical. With the mitigation clock ticking, the time of impact is not the time to determine recovery priorities.

A Timely Emergency Response
Technologies now exist to restore most forms of vital records. A crucial factor determining restorability is an effective emergency response that stabilizes the items and keeps restoration options open. Paper and other forms of vital records deteriorate rapidly when wet or contaminated, and mitigation steps must be implemented immediately.

Especially in cases where the quantity of records is so great that pack-out may take days, the ambient conditions of the environment in which they're housed need to be brought under control quickly. When humidity and temperature levels are elevated, degradation of paper is rapidly accelerated. To stabilize the environment, humidity levels must be brought to 40 percent or less and temperatures to 70 F or less. If a significant portion of the building is wet and it's 90 F outside, this is no small feat. The restoration contractor will have temporary temperature and humidity control equipment available to achieve these conditions. If operational, the mechanical systems in the building may also be used.

Vendor Pre-Appointment
It is especially prudent to have a restoration contractor that has extensive experience restoring vital records pre-appointed in a business continuity plan. In the heat of the battle, the decisions that need to be made regarding disposition and restoration of records will come fast and furious. During the crucial hours immediately following a crisis, having a pre-loss vendor relationship and recovery strategy goes a long way.

That being said, the following mitigation steps are offered to help recovery personnel through the immediate moments following an event when they may need to fend for themselves.

Water-Damaged Media

Since 90 percent of all disasters involve moisture from floods or fire suppression, following are water damage mitigation steps for various media.

Paper Documents and Books
Despite all our technological advances, paper is still predominant in the business world. Wet books and documents should be frozen as soon as possible to forestall degradation. It is recommended that a freezer trailer and a frozen storage vendor be pre-approved in the business continuity plan, although the restoration contractor should also have those resources available.

Since water-damaged materials can be frozen safely for an indefinite period of time, planners can freeze all materials immediately and later consider what to restore versus discard, as well as the best restoration options for the situation. There are various methods of restoring paper documents. Several factors will determine the best course of action (see Sidebar).

Books are more of a challenge than paper documents because of the binding and the potential for warping. Books must be handled and packed very carefully; they should not be opened or closed; their covers should not be removed; and they should be packed loosely, spine side down, in plastic milk crates or plastic bags placed in boxes. Freeze-drying is the preferred method for restoring books.

CDs and Optical Media
Scratches on optical media can cause data loss, so gloves should be worn and the media handled with care when recovering. As long as no physical damage has occurred, cleaning and data recovery can be relatively easy.

Magnetic Tapes, Microfilm, X-Rays, and Photographs
If wet, these media types should be placed in plastic bags and put in cold storage to keep from drying out. (A refrigerator will suffice for small quantities.) If allowed to dry, the coatings present on many types of film may cause layers to stick together and important information to be torn off.

If they cannot be dealt with in less than five days, tapes, microfilm, X-rays, and photographs should be frozen. Long-term wet storage will cause additional damage. Tapes can be cleaned on special equipment that removes contaminants and re-tensions the tape.

Fire- and Mold-Damaged Media

Other types of damage to vital records such as fire damage, toxic chemicals, biological contaminants, and mold can be restored. For fire damage, processes such as ionized air-washing and deodorization can be employed. Soot particulate must be removed, and trimming or re-processing may be required if permanent damage has occurred.

For bacteria and mold, Gamma and Electron Beam Radiation may be used to sterilize the documents if they can be transported to a laboratory. Other treatments may include manual cleaning in containment areas using down-draft tables to capture mold spores.

Inventory Control

Restoration contractors should have proven inventory control systems that prevent document loss and enable any document to be located and retrieved in a timely manner. This is especially important for working documents (medical or court records) and in specialized recovery projects such as large quantities of X-Rays, where the X-ray jacket and accompanying notes are critical to identification. All must be effectively tracked together or important information will be lost.


About the Author
Tracey L. McDonough is regional marketing director for BELFOR, an international property restoration provider, where she's worked for 7 years. She served two years on the National Board of the Association of Contingency Planners (ACP) and is past president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter. She may be reached at tracey.mcdonough@us.belfor.com.


Methods of Drying Paper

Historically, paper was dried by exposure to air and sun. This method can still be used but should only be considered when no other options are available because exposure to ultraviolet light and air pollutants can permanently damage paper.

Due to advances in research and technology, there are now several effective drying methods, all of which produce better results. Each method has its own merits. The choice of method is based on the type of paper and bindings, the quantity of documents, prioritization, and available time. It's not unusual to use more than one method on a project depending on the type of paper, ink, and bindings (if any). To offer any one method based solely on the availability of equipment or facility can limit the success of the project and/or increase restoration costs. Some of the best methods to consider are:

  • Vacuum Freeze-Drying or lyophilization dries frozen materials by sublimation and desorption at low pressure (high vacuum) and subzero temperatures. It is very effective for delicate paper materials provided the process can be maintained below the triple point of water (the point at which water vapor, liquid, and solid phases are all in equilibrium).
  • Thermal Vacuum Freeze-Drying (TVFD) applies heat while paper is in a sub-zero vacuum environment, thereby accelerating the rate of sublimation. The TVFD process greatly enhances sublimation and is an extremely effective method of removing moisture from delicate paper.
  • Molecular Sieve Drying (MSD) combines moisture entrapment at the molecular level with sublimation of water from paper while in a frozen state. This process is performed in a sealed chamber containing normal atmosphere. Generally, it is more time consuming and can be more costly, but it provides excellent results for collections that include large quantities of single-sheet thickness. It has the added advantage that technicians can enter the chamber to monitor results.
  • Low Humidity On-Site Desiccant Drying can be performed on site but requires rapid installation of temperature and humidity control equipment combined with careful arrangement, manipulation and monitoring of documents. This is the least high-tech method and generally is not as effective for drying saturated materials. But if daily on-site access is required, this may be the most viable drying method.
  • Temperature Flux Drying (TFD) can also be performed on site by modifying a low humidity drying room to enhance the rate of paper stabilization. As air temperature increases, its ability to hold moisture increases, and conversely, as air temperature decreases, its capacity to dispel moisture increases. Drying rooms equipped with TFD can optimize low humidity drying methods, particularly when the cost of business interruption is an important factor.
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