Defining Vital Records

Last Updated: September 28, 2018By

Vital records are mission-critical records necessary for an organization to continue to operate in the event of disruption or disaster (e.g., fire, flood, hacker attack); and records that cannot be recreated from any other source. A disaster recovery (DR)/business continuity (BC) plan is developed, tested, and implemented with vital records recovery being paramount. Importantly, vital records include records that maintain and protect the rights of stakeholders in addition to continuing or restarting operations in the event of a disaster or other business interruption.

Types of Vital Records

For a lay audience, vital records are often thought of as those records in the public discourse: birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and other official records. However, these represent a subset of vital records for governments; and to be clear, it is critical for governments to maintain historical records.

What is less intuitive is that every formal organization—business, nonprofit, or government—has vital records. These records are important for the maintenance of operations and infrastructure of an ongoing concern. For example, without payroll records and contact information, employees cannot be paid during emergencies—this very scenario played out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

This is not to say that all records are vital. As little as 1%-7% of an organization’s total records are considered vital. As such, each department within an organization needs to determine which records are vital records; not just important records but vital. Without identifying this subset of records, it is not possible to begin to prepare for a possible disaster. When business operations are interrupted, those that are ill-prepared suffer the greatest economic losses and more than two-thirds of organizations that are hit by a disaster go out of business.

Vital records can be paper, microfilm, audio/videotape, or electronic records—digital or analog. And appropriate steps must be taken to secure vital records, regardless of their media type.

Impact of Losing Vital Records

Vital records are critically important, and their loss can cause disastrous effects. While a disaster easily demonstrates the importance of a sturdy building or durable equipment, it is the loss of vital records that proves to be the most impactful. After all, you can always repair, lease, or purchase property, buildings, or hard assets once more. According to one university study, more than 70% of organizations go out of business within three years of suffering a fire that caused the loss of business records and software.

According to United Nations guidelines, the key points for managing risks and protecting vital records include:

  • Small subset. Your vital records will be small in number—typically only about 2% to 5% of all business records are vital.
  • Inventory and secure. Identify and protect them using IG policies, technologies, and physical security measures.
  • Keep updated. Remember to exchange older security copies for current versions as necessary. Also, official copies of vital records need to be tested periodically to ensure they are readable and in the most current and prevalent electronic formats.
  • Test the plan. Have a plan for accessing the security copies in the event of an emergency—and practice it.

This should serve as an important warning to understand your vital records, create and implement a vital records program, and to limit losses associated with a disaster.

U.S. National Archives Approach to Identify Vital Records

The U.S. National Archives has created guidelines that American federal agencies should follow when identifying vital records and creating document inventories:

  • 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.
  • Review current file plans of offices that are responsible for performing critical functions or may be responsible for preserving rights.
  • 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. 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 inventoried. 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 off-site storage of copies of the records series or system
  • The frequency with which the records are to be cycled (updated)

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