Losing vital documents in a fire or other disaster can slow down business recovery, warns Kirsten Rix

Despite the information technology revolution, most information management systems rely on hard copy information. This information is usually critical, confidential or needed for statutory reasons and is most vulnerable when disaster strikes.

Losing critical business paperwork, personnel files, legal documents, accounting records and even desk diaries can have disastrous consequences, from low staff morale to bankruptcy, yet few companies include provision for hard copy and document recovery in their business continuity plans.

There are more than £200m worth of claims for business interruption every year, and about the same again for arson. Our research indicates that between 40% and 70% of companies that suffer serious loss of data will go out of business within six months. Meanwhile, between 20% and 90% of critical information is still kept in hard copy format.

Impact of Turnbull

Since the introduction of the Turnbull Report on corporate governance in the UK, companies have become more likely to develop risk management cultures driven by senior management. Consequently, more business continuity policies and strategies are developed at board level, ensuring that information and any adverse risks relating to it can be managed more effectively.

When developing business continuity plans, emergency planners and facilities managers need to liaise with information managers to ensure that all aspects of information are included. Equally, information management systems need to be developed with the continuity plan in mind. Since information is the life-blood of a company, information management systems and business continuity plans should be closely integrated.

Information management and business continuity

An effective information management system should take into account the findings of a business impact analysis, including the impact on the business if key information is lost or destroyed, as well as the usual data protection, legal admissibility and security issues.

Although business-critical information may be kept in electronic format and backed up off site, most companies still use paperwork on a daily basis. If information must be kept in paper format it will need to be stored appropriately. Consider, for example, acetates and x-rays. It is no use putting them in a fireproof filing cabinet if it is not also heat resistant. The film would still melt.

An effective management information system should therefore include:

• a document management policy

• effective document retention policies compliant with business requirements and current regulations and business continuity plans

• intelligent information identification

• on-site and off-site filing and archive management systems

• off-site and on-site storage audits and reviews

• destruction services

• archive management.

Retention policies reduce risk

Efficient retention policies with simple schedules are the backbone of any effective management information system. They ensure office paperwork is kept to a minimum and that business-critical paperwork can be identified and restored swiftly in a crisis. When developing a retention schedule, companies need to consider legislative and regulatory references, while maintaining a focus on their own commercial requirements.

Minimising paperwork will have an impact on any recovery, whether it is manual or electronic. If disaster strikes, the worst nightmare is working out which paperwork is essential and which is not. The resulting delays have financial consequences. This situation can also seriously affect the morale of staff involved.

File retention systems are often not implemented because they involve manual identification and removal of unwanted documents. A system that automatically removes files when they are out of date keeps exposed critical paperwork to a minimum. Hard copy information should be effectively labelled and prioritised to ensure that it can be easily located in a crisis. Whoever is responsible for maintaining the retention schedules should also be responsible for ensuring that priority documents can be easily located.

Key elements

The key elements of a document continuity plan are:

• developing a policy for document recovery

• a detailed risk assessment

• assessing existing archive and storage facilities

• identifying all substrates, for example photos, drawings, acetates, etc

• identifying critical documentation

• identifying internal disaster teams

• creating retention schedules for priority documents

• creating disaster reaction flow charts

• creating a resumption of service procedure

• identifying and labelling salvage priorities

• making floor plans identifying high risk and secure areas

• training schedules.

The risk assessment helps to identify the overlap between the requirements of the business continuity plan and the information management system. It also helps to further develop the information management policy. And the results of a risk assessment on the business identify the possible impact of explosion, fire or flood, in qualitative or quantitative terms, depending on the client's requirements.

Conclusions drawn will impact on the archiving and storage systems. Storage off site or on site will be affected by a variety of issues, including threats from pressure groups or natural disasters. An animal research laboratory may be at high risk of attack from animal liberation activists for example and may wish to store material off site in a secure unit. Companies with plenty of basement storage space but high risk of flooding may wish to store documents well above floor level and introduce waterproof storage systems.

If disaster strikes

The recovery operation is much swifter when identified staff liaise with the restorers during the restoration process and specify which documents need to be restored immediately.

Businesses are particularly vulnerable to industrial espionage during a disaster – any number of client lists and contracts can go missing. The restorers should be prepared to sign confidentiality agreements and must be able to protect the information in their care. Loss adjusters favour restoration over replacement, as it is more cost effective than photocopying, reprinting or repurchasing. However, it is worth asking your restorer which processes they plan to carry out and why.

The loss adjuster will often decide who will do the restoration work, but the company must understand what they can expect from the exercise. Questions should include:

Are you confident that the restorer is fully conversant with all health and safety issues?

• Can the restorer log each file and keep a database?

• Can the restorer locate, restore and return a document on demand?

• Can the restorer work on site if necessary?

• What facilities does the restorer have?

• Can the restorer give you a sample of a reinstated document?

• What similar jobs have the restorers done and do they have a good reputation?

Treating flood and fire damage

There are a wide variety of formats and complex substrates used in offices. Treatment should not begin until the paper substrate has been identified.

With floods, unless certain decisions are taken immediately, mould and bacteria can set in. If sewage is present, the papers need to be treated with virucidal disinfectants and bacterial inhibitors before treatment. Serious hazards to health and safety can be eliminated only if promptly treated by qualified experts.

In the case of fire, one might assume that paperwork would go up like the proverbial bonfire. In reality, the lack of circulating oxygen between tightly packed files and volumes generally keeps charring to a minimum. Most damage is caused by smoke and can be readily reversed with appropriate treatment, depending on the nature of the chemicals released by the fire.

The procedures of a recovery operation are highly specific. Smoke damage must be treated quickly and efficiently. If neglected, permanent staining can occur and acid damage can make paperwork and documents brittle and unusable. Gloves, overalls and masks are needed to minimise body contact with paper since fingers and hands exude small amounts of oil that can further damage the paperwork. This reacts with oils released from the smoke, and can form a compound that is almost impossible to remove. Special deodorisers are used to remove the smell of smoke after the cleaning process is finished.

Peace of mind

Priority call-out memberships with restorers can provide peace of mind and ensure the client receives priority treatment in the event of a local disaster.

It is also worth checking insurance policies to ensure that document restoration is covered under consequential loss and business interruption policies. Often documents and books are underinsured, which incurs considerable delays in a crisis.

Risk management is now firmly on the board agenda. A closer working relationship between risk managers and information managers will help companies reduce risks further and help to make any recovery much more effective.

Kirsten Rix is marketing manager, Document SOS, Tel: 0207 498 8080, E-mail: marketing@documentsos.com