Federal Records Management

Resources - Vital Records and Records Disaster Mitigation and Recovery

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1999 Web Edition

Table of Contents


The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Instructional Guide Series provides Federal agencies with guidance on the management of records and other types of documentary materials accumulated by Federal agencies and officials.

The guides are intended to assist senior agency officials, program managers, records officers, information resource managers and their staffs in creating and maintaining accurate and complete records of an agency's functions and activities and in ensuring the authorized, timely, and appropriate disposition of documentary materials that are no longer needed to conduct business. Particular attention is given to policies and procedures providing for the preservation and protection of records of enduring value that are intended for transfer to the National Archives.

"Vital Records and Records Disaster Mitigation and Recovery" was written by Charles J. Brett. The author wishes to thank Scott Roley and the subject area experts of the Office of Regional Records Services and Diana Alper-Roley for their contributions.

This 1999 Web Edition reproduces the 1996 printed version of the instructional guide. The only changes from the printed version in this edition are updated organizational titles.


The management of vital records is part of a Federal agency's emergency preparedness responsibility. This instructional guide addresses the identification and protection of records containing information that Federal agencies may need to conduct business under emergency operating conditions or to protect the legal and financial rights of the Federal Government and the people it serves. This guide also recommends policies and procedures that will allow agencies to assess the damage to and implement the recovery of any of their records that may be affected by an emergency or disaster.

An emergency means a situation or an occurrence of a serious nature, developing suddenly and unexpectedly, and demanding immediate action. This is generally of short duration, for example, an interruption of normal agency operations for a week or less. It may involve electrical failure or minor flooding caused by broken pipes. A disaster, on the other hand, means an unexpected occurrence inflicting widespread destruction and distress and having long-term adverse effects on agency operations. Each agency defines what a long-term adverse effect is in relation to its most critical program activities.

Much of the information in this instructional guide is advisory in nature, rather than regulatory. It is left to the discretion and judgment of Federal agency officials how best to implement the practices and procedures described herein, taking into consideration the human, financial, and information resources available for implementing them.

The identification and protection of copies of records containing vital information and the implementation of records disaster mitigation and recovery programs are an insurance policy against disruption of critical agency operations. To effect that insurance policy, Federal agencies must act to achieve the aims of continuing operations, resuming normal business operations, protecting legal and financial rights, and recovering damaged records. Consequently, agencies need to determine their most critical functions and identify those records needed for the performance of those functions. Equally important is the identification of recorded information that protects the legal and financial rights both of an agency and of the individuals directly affected by that agency's actions. Finally, agencies need to develop a plan of action to respond to emergencies or disasters that may damage an agency's records and to provide for the recovery of needed information, regardless of the medium of the records. Agency officials should keep in mind that both vital records and records disaster recovery programs occur in the context of emergency preparedness.


The Federal vital records program originated in the 1950s as part of an effort to ensure continuity of Government during national emergencies. Bureau of Budget Bulletins No. 51-14, May 22, 1951, and No. 52-5, September 6, 1951, established requirements for vital operating records protection programs. Subsequently, President Truman issued Executive Order (EO) 10346 on April 17, 1952, making each Federal department and agency responsible for carrying out its essential functions in an emergency. Later Presidents have issued various Executive orders that have modified Federal continuity of Government and emergency preparedness responsibilities. Currently, EO 12656 defines agency responsibilities during a national security emergency.

The initial focus of the vital records program was the continuation of Federal agency operations under national emergency conditions, including a possible nuclear attack on the United States, and the resumption of normal agency activities at the emergency's conclusion. The cold war created a need to prepare for national mobilization in case of an actual war. With the decline of diplomatic tensions and the recent end of the cold war, the Federal vital records program increasingly has focused on continuity of operations and protection of records in the face of natural disasters and the threat of terrorism.

Technological advances affecting the management of recorded information also have had an increasing impact on vital records programs. The Federal Government frequently relies on electronic information systems to conduct its business and to document essential transactions. Because information in electronic form may be changed or deleted more easily than information on other media, special measures are required in the creation and preservation of electronic records.


Contingency Planning and Risk Assessment

The vital records and records disaster mitigation and recovery programs relate to emergency preparedness. Contingency planning is critical to laying the foundation for both programs, and appropriate agency staff should be involved in this process. The planning provides a forum for dealing with the following issues:

  • determining the most critical activities that the agency must perform if it must operate under other than normal business conditions and in a facility other than its normal place of business;
  • identifying which records support those critical activities and the resumption of normal operations;
  • identifying which records series or electronic information systems contain information needed to protect the legal and financial rights of the agency and persons directly affected by the agency's actions and preserving copies of such records; and
  • establishing and implementing a plan to recover records (regardless of the medium of recording) that are damaged in an emergency or disaster.

Guidance to determine what might constitute critical agency functions is already available. EO 12656, issued in November 1988, defines particular functions certain agencies must continue under a national security emergency declared by the President. This Executive order assigns the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lead responsibility in providing guidance to Federal agencies about emergency preparedness. FEMA has supplemented the requirements outlined in EO 12656 by issuing Federal Preparedness Circulars (FPCs) 60 and 64. Those circulars designate which agencies have the most critical and the least critical functions in terms of a declared national security emergency. ( Appendix A, Further Guidance and Assistance, provides information on obtaining copies of FPCs from FEMA.)

Agency staff participating in contingency planning may include those from such functional areas as emergency coordination or preparedness as authorized by EO 12656, information resources management (IRM), automatic data processing (ADP), records management, security, and facilities management. Officials from all these areas have essential roles in the continuity of operations should disaster strike. Therefore, their participation in the planning process and their contribution to the development of continuity of agency operations and records disaster recovery programs are crucial.

Planning must address actual and potential risks that could adversely affect agency operations and the preservation of records. Possible threats include fire, hurricane, earthquake, flood, sabotage, civil disturbance, terrorism, and infestation by vermin or other pests. In terms of natural disasters, regional conditions should be considered. Federal agencies located on the east coast of the United States must consider the possible effect of hurricanes on their operations and their records. Those in the South and Midwest may be more subject to tornadoes. Those on the west coast may be subject to earthquakes. All regions are subject to the possibility of flood and fire. Examples of disasters affecting Federal facilities include the hurricane that hit Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, a flood that invaded the Defense Mapping Agency in St. Louis, MO, an earthquake that damaged a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Los Angeles, CA, the volcano eruption that caused the evacuation and abandonment of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, as well as the bombing of the Federal facility occupied by several agencies in Oklahoma City.

Levels of Risk

In planning to meet actual and potential risks to agency operations and the records needed to support them, agency officials should identify the types of risks to which each of its facilities may be subject. They should also assess the level of each type of risk to determine the type of protection or response that may be required. Some emergencies may require only limited response, while the President might declare others to be national security emergencies. Emergencies may affect one office within the agency or an entire facility. They may be local or regional in scope. For example, forewarning of an imminent terrorist attack on an agency facility might be characterized as a top-level emergency and preplanned action would be taken to evacuate agency staff from the threatened facility and continue agency operations from another site until the threat is resolved or ceases. Alternatively, a minor flood causing minimal damage to agency records and space would be assigned a lower magnitude of importance requiring a less disruptive response. Additional detail on level of emergencies is provided in the section Records Disaster Mitigation and Recovery.

Vital Records Program

The vital records program is intended to do two basic things. First, the program provides an agency with the information it needs to conduct its business under other than normal operating conditions and to resume normal business afterward. Second, the program enables agency officials to identify and protect the most important records dealing with the legal and financial rights both of the agency and of persons directly affected by the agency's actions. Consequently, two types of vital records have been traditionally identified: emergency-operating records and records needed to protect rights. The various components required to implement the program follow.

Program Objectives

To ensure its effectiveness, the objectives of the vital records program should be integrated into appropriate position descriptions, functional statements, and procedural manuals. These documents should specify agency staff responsibilities, provide for training and distribution of information to concerned staff, and require that vital records designations are current and complete. Through these and other issuances agencies should disseminate information about the vital records program detailing the policies, authorities, responsibilities of agency officials, and the procedures to be followed to protect vital records and to continue operations in case of emergency or disaster. (See Appendix C for sample directives.)


Agency officials responsible for coordinating the vital records program serve a critical function. They must work with other appropriate officials throughout the agency to identify, inventory, protect, store, make accessible, and cycle (update as needed) the copies of vital records required in an emergency, including records that document legal and financial rights.

The records officer plays a crucial role in providing guidance and assistance in inventorying records and determining appropriate maintenance practices for copies of vital records. The cooperation of agency program managers is important throughout the life cycle of vital records. Based on the contingency planning analysis and identification of both emergency-operating records and those needed to protect legal and financial rights, program managers must determine which records within their physical or legal custody are vital. Program managers, in consultation with the records management office, should then take steps to ensure that copies of those vital records are properly managed throughout their life, as they are updated, stored, and cycled. In addition, original vital records must be properly maintained until their authorized disposition.

In the discussion of contingency planning and risk assessment, this guide described certain functional areas as important to those processes. Officials within those areas have critical roles should an emergency or disaster strike their agency. IRM, ADP, and records management officials ensure that adequate information resources are available to conduct critical agency business.

Vital Records Plan

Each agency should develop a vital records plan. The first part of the plan is a description of records that are vital to continued agency operations or for the protection of legal and financial rights. The plan also includes specific measures for storing and periodically cycling (updating) copies of those records.

The description of vital records is based on identification and inventorying. Federal agencies may take the following steps to identify and inventory vital records:

  • Consult with the official responsible for emergency coordination,
  • Review agency statutory and regulatory responsibilities and existing emergency plans for insights into the functions and records that may be included in the vital records inventory,
  • Review documentation created for the contingency planning and risk assessment phase of emergency preparedness. The offices performing those functions are obvious focuses of an inventory,
  • Review current file plans of offices that are responsible for performing critical functions or may be responsible for preserving rights, and
  • Review the agency records manual or records schedule to determine which records series potentially qualify as vital.

Agencies must exercise caution in designating records as vital and in conducting the vital records inventory. A review of the available literature suggests that from 1 to 7 percent of an agency's records may be vital records. Only those records series or electronic information systems (or portions of them) most critical to emergency operations or the preservation of legal or financial rights should be so designated. Agencies must make difficult and judicious decisions in this regard.

The inventory of vital records should include:

  • The name of the office responsible for the records series or electronic information system containing vital information
  • The title of each records series or information system containing vital information
  • Identification of each series or system that contains emergency-operating vital records or vital records relating to rights
  • The medium on which the records are recorded
  • The physical location for offsite storage of copies of the records series or system
  • The frequency with which the records are to be cycled (updated).

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission directive on vital records found in Appendix C provides an example of an approach for identifying and managing vital records.

Records likely to be selected as vital include:

  • Emergency-operating records
  • Emergency plans and directive(s), or other authorizing issuances, including information needed to operate the emergency operations center and its equipment, and records recovery plans and procedures
  • Orders of succession
  • Delegations of authority
  • Emergency staffing assignments, including lists of personnel, along with their addresses and telephone numbers (and comparable data for alternates), assigned to the emergency operations center or other emergency duties or authorized access to damaged facilities to assess the extent of damage
  • Emergency operations center access credentials and classified or restricted access container documentation (as required)
  • Building plans and building systems operations manuals for all agency facilities
  • Equipment inventories for all agency facilities
  • File plans describing the records series and electronic information systems maintained at official filing stations for all agency facilities
  • Vital records inventories
  • Copies of agency program records (whatever the media) needed to carry out continuing critical functions
  • System documentation for any electronic information systems designated as emergency
  • operating records.

This list is not inclusive.

Records needed to protect rights:

- Accounts-receivable records Social security records Payroll records Retirement records Insurance records Any records relating to contracts, entitlement, leases, or obligations whose loss would pose a significant risk to the legal and financial rights of the Federal Government or persons directly affected by its actions System documentation for any electronic information systems designated as records needed to protect rights.

This list is not inclusive.

After completion of the inventory, agencies must choose protection methods and storage sites for vital records. The former may include using existing duplicates of the records designated as vital or duplication for this purpose. If performing duplication, it generally is most economical to duplicate the original medium onto the same medium; that is, duplicate microfiche onto microfiche or magnetic tape onto magnetic tape. Appropriate equipment should be selected to ensure the continued preservation of copies of the vital records until they are cycled. In addition, agencies should ensure proper environmental conditions for storage of copies of vital records, particularly for those recorded on fragile media such as microfilm or magnetic tape or disks, until they are replaced.

Given the importance of vital records, agencies should arrange for offsite storage of copies in a facility not subject to the same emergency or disaster but still reasonably accessible to agency staff. The storage site for copies of emergency operation records may be different from the storage site for copies of records needed to protect legal rights. Whenever feasible, an agency should store copies of emergency-operating records in a properly equipped and environmentally controlled emergency operations center. If these vital records are recorded on a medium other than paper, agencies should check with the center before initiating the transfer to ensure that appropriate environmentally controlled space is available. If an agency has not established such an operations center, it may store emergency-operating records at a regional records service facility operated by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) (see 36 CFR 1236.26). Periodic cycling (updating) of copies of vital records is essential. The agency decides the frequency of cycling, based on how current its emergency-operating records and records needed to protect rights must be to meet its information needs and responsibilities. Depending on those needs and upon the medium on which the vital record is maintained, cycling may occur daily, weekly, monthly, annually, or at longer intervals.


All agency employees assigned responsibilities in the vital records program should receive appropriate training. Periodic briefings should be given to senior managers, especially those new to the agency, about the vital records program and its relationship to their records. Appropriate agency officials should ensure that employees receive training appropriate to their assigned duties. Such training generally focuses on the identification, inventorying, protection, storage, and cycling of copies of the agency's vital records. Wherever possible it should be integrated with existing agency training initiatives, particularly in such areas as records management and emergency coordination.

Review and Testing

The agency official(s) responsible for managing the vital records program should conduct periodic reviews with other appropriate agency program managers to determine whether the agency's vital records are adequately protected, current, and accessible to the staff who would use them. This is particularly important should the agency's functions or activities change significantly. Such changes might require a modification of the vital records plan.

Federal agencies should periodically test their emergency plans and procedures to determine if the records designated as vital will allow agency staff to function effectively in case of emergency. The agency official responsible for managing the vital records program should work with other test participants to assess the results of the test and to make appropriate modifications where needed.

Records Disaster Mitigation and Recovery Program

Agencies should develop appropriate protective measures for their records and copies of their vital records to respond to actual or potential emergencies or disasters identified in contingency planning. This is the records management aspect of emergency management. Vital records are emphasized because they tend to have the greatest value in case of emergency or they require extra protection because they document legal or financial rights. The type and level of value determine the amount of protection agencies should provide. Special protective measures for vital records may include using fire-rated filing equipment for storage; constructing onsite vaults; transferring records to offsite storage; duplicating the records at the time of their creation, such as computer "backup" tapes, using existing duplicates as vital record copies; or microfilming vital records.

Additional protective measures are needed for Federal records maintained on a medium other than paper. These "special records" require specific environmental conditions and careful handling throughout their life cycle to ensure their preservation. Agencies must maintain temperature and humidity controls for special records such as photographs and negatives, microforms, audio, and video tapes and disks, and electronic tapes and disks.

When emergencies or disasters occur, however, even the best of protective measures may not prevent damage to records. Consequently, agencies need to develop records recovery plans for timely and economical response to records disasters in order to salvage or replace damaged records and the information that they contain.

Program Objectives

Agencies must be able to continue operations in case of emergency or disaster. Availability of critical information is key to continuation of operations. Consequently, agencies should ensure that responsible personnel are familiar with the records disaster mitigation and recovery program. Each agency should document the policies, authorities, responsibilities of agency officials, and procedures governing the records disaster mitigation and recovery program in appropriate issuances such as functional statements and procedural manuals. These issuances should clearly assign responsibility for coordinating disaster recovery plans and activities. They should also designate other members of a disaster recovery team to be activated in time of need. Agencies should distribute this records disaster recovery program information to all appropriate staff members. Below is a list of disaster planning steps that agencies may find useful in planning for potential disasters.

Disaster Planning Steps

  1. Identify and assign responsibility (committees, task forces, or teams)
    • planning
    • response
    • recovery
  2. Train members of the committees, task forces, or teams
  3. Conduct a risk analysis
    • identify potential building problems
    • survey fire protection policies and equipment
    • assess ability to protect people
    • evaluate potential for damage from natural disasters
  4. Establish goals and a timetable
  5. Develop a reporting schedule and reporting lines
  6. Evaluate records and assign priorities
  7. Identify potential sources of damage
  8. Assess prevention and protection needs
    • stockpile supplies and equipment
    • replenish when necessary
  9. Review fiscal implications
  10. Prepare the plan
  11. Distribute the plan
    • train
    • drill
  12. Evaluate the plan and update it regularly

Levels of Risk

In developing the records disaster recovery plan, agency officials should assess the varying intensity of each risk to which their records may be subject. Risks may range from minor flooding affecting only one or two offices in a facility to a major earthquake that causes significant damage to an entire region. Generally, water, fire, and smoke damage should receive particular attention as they present the greatest danger of damage to records. If chemical agents are stored in the building or contained in its operating systems, their potential damage should also be addressed during the planning. For example, certain chemicals used in fire extinguishers adhere to records. Although these types of extinguishers may be effective in smothering a fire, they should not be used in areas where records are exposed. Agency staff participating in emergency planning should be those cited earlier in this guide under Contingency Planning and Risk Assessment.


The agency official responsible for managing the records disaster recovery program is the program coordinator. This coordinator should work with other appropriate agency officials on the development and implementation of protective measures to mitigate potential records disasters. This official will also have primary responsibility for ensuring that an up-to-date records recovery plan is in place and available to all concerned personnel.

Program managers are crucial to mitigation of potential records emergencies or disasters. They should work closely with the records disaster recovery program coordinator and other agency officials to ensure that agency staff are aware of and execute appropriate protective measures for the records under their control. This is particularly important for electronic information systems where the creation of backup data is an essential protective measure, or for other nonpaper records such as audiovisual records and microfilm. It is more economical to duplicate many of these media (particularly magnetic tape or cartridges) at the time of creation than to attempt to recover a sole copy damaged in an emergency or disaster. Making copies of undamaged records also ensures that all data in the records will be available.

Records Recovery Plan

Each agency should include records recovery in its disaster plan with specific procedures for personnel to follow in the event that an emergency or disaster occurs (see Appendix D). The records disaster recovery program coordinator should work with such agency officials as the emergency coordinator, the IRM and ADP staff, facilities managers, and security staff in developing the records recovery plan. In addition, all other agency staff should be briefed on their general responsibilities should such an emergency or disaster occur.

The records recovery plan should provide details about the following processes: (1) notifying the appropriate persons immediately in case of emergency to relate details about the nature of the emergency and the level of threat to the records; (2) assessing the damage to records as soon as possible after the emergency and taking immediate steps to stabilize the condition of the records so further damage will not occur; (3) assembling a records recovery team of agency staff members to expedite stabilization of the records (generally only for major records disasters); (4) consulting with contractors that provide records disaster recovery services if the damage assessment shows a need for their expertise; (5) recovering the records and the information that they contain, or providing replacement of any lost recorded information when recovery is not feasible; and (6) resuming normal business using the recovered records and information. Below is an outline of the components or elements of such a plan.

Elements of a Disaster Recovery Plan

  1. Table of Contents
  2. Introduction
    • use of the document
    • how it is to be revised
    • responsible personnel
    • general information about the facility
  3. . Emergency information sheet
    • fire/police departments
    • hospitals
    • emergency shut-off
    • utility companies
    • brief list of emergency respondents
  4. Telephone/reporting
  5. tree
  6. Records priorities
  7. Response outline
    • lead personnel responsibilities
    • assessing the situation
    • organizing/prioritizing efforts
    • establishing a command post
    • eliminating hazards
    • controlling the environment
    • dealing with the media
    • obtaining emergency funding/supplies
    • providing security
    • providing human comforts
    • training in salvage techniques onsite
  8. Supply lists and assistance/equipment vendors
  9. Clear description of salvage techniques
  10. Rehabilitation plans for conservation treatment
  11. Appendixes

Several additional points should be stressed. In assessing the damage to records, the recording medium must be taken into account. Photographic negatives and microfilm that are water damaged require different treatment from water-damaged paper records. Also, agencies should ensure that records with access restrictions are handled only by personnel with proper clearance. Before beginning the actual recovery process, the agency should separate any damaged records from undamaged records, wherever possible, to speed up repair and recovery.

A list of records disaster recovery specialists including their areas of expertise, addresses, telephone numbers, and an individual point of contact should be prepared before a records emergency or disaster occurs. This list should be checked periodically to ensure that it remains accurate and current. Agencies should be aware that disaster recovery specialists often concentrate on very specific problems. One recovery specialist may focus on recovering water-damaged paper records, while another may concentrate on recovery of water-damaged magnetic tape. Consequently, agencies should develop as broad a listing of records disaster recovery specialists as possible to respond appropriately to all the potential risks to which all their recorded media might be subject.

Agencies should also consider maintaining onsite certain equipment to help mitigate water damage to records. An example of such a list is found in Appendix D in the section entitled " Emergency Equipment and Supplies on Hand." Agencies may also consult with NARA's regional records service facilities to obtain information about records disaster recovery plans.


All agency employees should receive training appropriate to their records disaster recovery responsibilities. Briefings about the program should be directed to all employees in combination with other emergency preparedness activities devoted to such topics as fire drills or building evacuation drills.

Agencies should also train members of the records disaster recovery team and any designated alternate members so they can assist the official coordinating disaster recovery in time of need. At the minimum, team members should assist in assessing the nature and extent of the records disaster and identifying which records were affected and the physical media of the records, so the recovery manager can report accurately on the disaster and recommend specific recovery steps for approval by the agency's senior managers. For example, if the volume of paper records damaged by water is manageable, the recovery team members may be able to take preliminary steps to mitigate further damage and speed the recovery process.

NARA also provides training in Disaster Recovery and Vital Records. Visit NARA's Records Management Learn Center for a complete training schedule.

Review and Testing

The records disaster recovery program coordinator should conduct a periodic review of the records recovery plan with the assistance of selected agency officials to determine its adequacy and accuracy. This review should include the list of vendors (with telephone numbers, addresses, and other relevant data) that may have to be called upon in case of an actual records emergency or disaster.

The plan should also be periodically tested, much as fire drills and building evacuation procedures are tested. The test should include the records disaster recovery team and evaluate its activities as well as the usefulness and thoroughness of the recovery plan. Modifications to either the plan or to the team's responsibilities should be made as needed.

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Vital Records and Records Disaster Mitigation and Recovery, National Archives and Records Administration Instructional Guide Series, College Park, MD (1996), 90