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Disaster Planning/Recovery

Chapter 4

Even if budget constraints have prevented many counties from instituting a comprehensive records management program, the development of a vital records program can minimize the effects of a calamity (see Chapter 3). Most disaster recovery efforts are restricted to vital records because salvage techniques are expensive and time consuming and are not cost-justifiable for most non-vital records. Recovery will be enormously simplified if offices institute minimal preventive measures. During periodic inspections of active files and records storage facilities, staff should conduct random examinations of file cabinets and storage boxes for signs of deterioration. Although there is no absolute guarantee against destruction from a disaster, a vital records protection program can be a cost-justifiable way to minimize the effects of a calamity. The cost of prevention will always be less than the cost of a salvage operation. See the Appendices for a list of disaster planning/recovery resources.

Preliminary Actions

Staff must identify records series created by the office, be aware of their retention and disposition dates, and know their value to your daily operation--are they nonessential, useful, important or vital? A good disaster mitigation plan for all records can prevent the loss of vital records and hold down the costs of recovery. Two disaster prevention services must be emphasized:
Safeguarding Resources: buildings, equipment, and supplies must be analyzed and improved and procedural controls instituted to protect records stored either on-site or off-site against damage or destruction from fire, water, fluctuations of temperature and humidity, infestation by pests and vermin, pollution, and other disasters.

Safeguarding privacy and security: procedures for the authorization of access and the prevention of theft must be instituted in both on-site and off-site locations.

Salvage Operations

Pre-planning, coordination, and speed are extremely important for effective salvage. The longer salvage is delayed, the more the records deteriorate, and the harder it is to reverse the damage. Mold, for example, will grow on wet paper within forty-eight hours. The following guidelines will help you conduct a salvage operation when a disaster does strike.

Building Inspection: As soon as possible after a disaster, officials with expertise in electrical, building, and fire safety should examine the facility and certify its safety.

Communications Center: Telephones or walkie-talkies may have to be placed in a temporary location in the immediate vicinity of the salvage operation.

Recovery Coordination: The lines of authority and responsibility should be clearly established by county administrators.

Coordinator: Appoint an official to oversee recovery efforts.

Departmental Liaisons: The coordinator should assemble officials who have custody of records that have been damaged to help identify them.

Logistical Support: Depending on the nature of the disaster, you will need:

Other local government people to help with the salvage operation.

Equipment and supplies to accomplish salvage objectives--perhaps temporary lighting, communications, transportation, tables, containers, and chemicals.

Consultants--you will need a records analyst to identify retention requirements and dispositions and a preservation specialist to treat salvageable records or identify future conservation needs. A commercial vendor will also participate in most salvage operations involving more than 10 cubic feet of materials. Consulting analysts and preservation specialists are available through the State Historical Society.

Salvage Methods for Paper Documents

The coordinator, departmental liaisons, and consultants begin by examining the records to:
See if a list of the records involved exists, and if it does, where it is kept.

Find out if there are duplicates of the records involved in other locations.

See what can be saved.

See what can be legally destroyed by consulting records schedules.

Pack salvageable records carefully and label them to ensure continuing identification.

The type of damage inflicted will dictate the salvage method you choose. If the disaster is a fire or flood, the records might be saturated. For help--especially if the damage is severe, the materials are over-sized, or mold has begun to grow--contact a preservation specialist at the State Archives. Water-damaged records can be salvaged by:

Air Drying: This is most appropriate for small quantities of photographs and slightly damp paper. Spread photographs emulsion side down on waxed paper or soft blotting paper and dry with fans that are circulating the air rapidly but not pointed directly at the photographs. Open books, spread boards and pages, and stand them on end with the text upside down; insert blotting paper between pages to speed the process and replace it when it gets damp. If you have to move items to a recovery area, use the packing instructions given below.

Freezing: This prevents deterioration and is appropriate for items that are soaked and for large quantities of material. Before they go into the freezer, these items must be clearly identified and packed according to the instructions below. Once they are in the freezer, you will have time to explore your most cost-effective recovery options with a records preservation specialist at the State Archives.
Ventilated plastic crates are the best containers for packing waterlogged books and paper for the freezer, but they are hard to find, hard to store, and expensive. Standard small records center cartons are an adequate substitute. Wrap books individually in plain paper and pack them spine down. If unbound records are soaked, do not try to separate them; instead pack them flat and interleave them as much as you can with blotting paper.

If photographs have to be frozen, pack them individually in plastic bags, store them flat, don't put too much weight on top of them, and keep them separate from other materials. Oversized materials require careful handling and cannot be frozen easily; they usually have to be air dried or freeze-dried. Ideally, a preservation specialist should be contacted to assist staff in packing photographic media and oversized materials.

Freeze-drying: This process minimizes water damage by drying substances first by freezing the water and then by turning the frozen solid into a gas in a high vacuum at a low temperature. It is expensive, is conducted only by major vendors, and is appropriate for very valuable materials or records that must be retained in the original format. A list of vendors is given in the Appendix although we do not make any recommendations.

Salvaging Water-damaged Microfilm

If microfilm is water-soaked, keep it wet to prevent it from sticking together; remove dirt and debris gently to avoid abrasion; and store it in clean water. For information on reprocessing vendors, contact our Microfilm Lab or our Preservation Officer.
Other Salvage Methods:
Staff may need help to duplicate singed, scorched, or charred records or to employ strategies used for archival records. These strategies could include:

Re-housing:Placing the records in archival-quality enclosures.

Microfilming:Filming damaged documents to generate durable working copies, prevent further deterioration by eliminating excessive handling, and generating archival masters for permanent storage.

Stabilizing and repairing: Do not attempt repairs yourself; improper handling and stabilization could do irreparable damage to permanently valuable records.


Recovery programs are conducted to salvage a local government's vital records in the event of disaster. Adverse impact of disasters can be minimized by taking a preliminary survey of holdings and establishing a written disaster recovery plan to confer authority and identify the elements of a records salvage operation before a disaster occurs. If catastrophe strikes, staff will need to: conduct a safety inspection of the building immediately, establish a communications center, appoint a recovery coordinator and departmental liaisons, and obtain logistical support, which includes employees from other offices, equipment and supplies, and consultants.
The records officer in cooperation with the Records Management Section can use records retention schedules to make decisions about salvaging or destroying records.

The salvage methods used will depend on the volume and format of the records being saved. Salvage is expensive and time-consuming and should always be conducted by qualified, experienced professionals.

Staff must update regularly the information needed to conduct a disaster recovery program--names, addresses, telephone numbers, policies, and procedures--and maintain a copy of this information off-site in case staff can't get to the on-site copy. Please see the Appendices for helpful contact information.

Our archivists and records analysts will help you with disaster recovery and will give you advice without charge. For advice and help on document restoration or disaster planning, call your regional Kansas Disaster Recovery Assistance Network (KDRAN ) representative. For information on the network and a list or representatives contact or Preservation Officer,

This guide is also available in hardcopy from the Library/Archives Records Management Section.