Vital records are just as the name implies – vital.
They are the 5-7% off all government records that an
agency can’t live without.
Vital records must be incorporated into an agency’s overall Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) and need to be protected and readily accessible according to FEMA regulations.
What is a vital record? According to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), vital records are your agency’s most essential and irreplaceable records that are needed to meet operational responsibilities under national security emergencies or other emergency or disaster conditions (emergency operating records) or to protect the legal and financial rights of the Government and those affected by Government activities (legal and financial rights records).
What is considered vital?
- Emergency Operating Vital Records – These are needed during an emergency (first 24-48 hours): they are essential to help keep an agency functioning or to help reconstitute the agency after the emergency passes.
- Legal and Financial Rights Vital Records – Legal and financial rights records are needed once a disaster is over and your agency begins to return to normal. These records will be needed to protect governmental and individual’s rights.
How to identify vital records? The preservation and protection of vital records will ensure that your agency can recover from a disruption or emergency and continue operations. How you determine what is truly vital to your operations will differ from organization to organization.
“Start with your agency’s mission and use that to guide the process of defining what it vital.”
The best place to start is your agency’s mission. Think about the elements that define that mission and therefore the records that will require long-term preservation. Ask yourself:
- What needs to be preserved to ensure continuity of agency operations?
- What are the consequences if a certain class of government records was lost due to a natural or man-made disaster? Would your agency be able to function without them? Could normal functions take place?
- What regulatory requirements govern your organization and what government records must be retained to comply?
- What records need to be preserved to protect the rights of citizens and employees?
- Could the records be replaced or reconstructed? At what cost?
- What’s important to carry forward for historic purposes? What do you want future generations to know about your organization?
Agencies are responsible for identifying, protecting, and making readily accessible their vital records. However, in the recent NARA Records Management Self Assessment Report, 31% of respondents reported either that their agencies have not identified their vital records (21%) or that they do not know whether they have done so (10%).
The findings for the Vital Records section of this report show that a significant minority of agencies:
- Either have not identified their vital records or do not know if they have been identified;
- Continue to view the records management and continuity of operations (COOP) programs as unrelated;
- Do not perform a required annual review of their vital records program; and
- Provide limited training on vital records to records liaisons and emergency management staff.
So, how can you help your agency’s manage and protect their most important records? To develop a successful vital records program—and protect that magic five percent of records your organization cannot function without—take the following steps:
- Identify. Using your agency’s mission as a guide, determine which records are truly vital.
- Assess. Evaluate the materials these records are comprised of and their current condition.
- Research. Given the materials and their condition, investigate the best approaches and optimal conditions for long-term preservation.
- Document. Identify COOP processes and obtain organizational buy-in to ensure support for long-term vital record preservation.
- Protect. Implement your vital records program, including:
- Protective storage using the most secure, environmentally safe and economical means
- Duplication and/or dispersal with geographic separation
- Reassess. Continually monitor program effectiveness
These simple steps establish a vital records program that identifies and protects the records that will direct your agency’s operation in an emergency and protect the legal and financial rights of citizens.
Examples of Vital Records:
- Disaster plan—so you know how to respond to emergency or disaster conditions
- Delegations of authority—to reference lines of succession and those in charge at the point in time the disaster occurs
- Building plans—for emergency responders who need to enter a structure affected by the disaster
- Computer system documentation—code books, layouts, and manuals that tell you how to restore files from backup tapes and resume computer operations at an alternate site\
- Accounts receivable—in order to continue to collect funds due your agency and avoid loss of income.
- Social security, payroll and retirement records—to protect the rights and entitlements of your current and past employees, and continue paying your staff during the crisis
- Other records relating to the protection of people and material, and the maintenance of public health, safety, and order
- Federal Mandate: Presidential Memorandum – Managing Government Records
- Ten Steps to Cost-Effective Government Information Management
- How Long is Long Enough: Records Retention and Your Agency
- How Researching Ernest Hemingway’s Past led me to Federal Records
- Federal Records, Open Government and FOIA: How do I get it all done?