Expert's Corner: How to Preserve and Recover Documents After a Disaster

In his latest Expert's Corner, Michael Keating outlines ways that manufacturers can preserve important documents after a disaster. This is Keating's fifth in a series on disaster planning and recovery. Future installments in his disaster series will cover disaster preparation training for manufacturers and web resources and disaster guides for manufacturers. 

After record-breaking rainfall sent floodwaters from the Cumberland River into downtown Nashville three years ago, a Tennessee state government warehouse stood in four feet of water. Thousands of critical documents archived by state's Supreme Court and various agencies were damaged or destroyed.

Such a disaster could leave a manufacturing company reeling or even pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.

It's crucial that documents be readily available to a business after a disaster, said Scott Byers, CEO of information management service EDM Americas. Every company needs to take steps to mitigate risk with their documents and other information to avoid major disruptions, expenses, and regulatory fines, he said.

All businesses rely on paper documentation, said Tom McGuire, managing director/president of The Solutions Co., a Cocoa Beach, Fla., company that specializes in document recovery. Such documents as factory drawings, sales records, and personnel files could be critical to the continuing operations of the business after a disaster, he said.

"There are more than 5 billion boxes of documents stored in North America, alone," McGuire said. "Will we ever truly be a paperless society? Probably yes, but not for decades into the future."

In the meantime, manufacturing executives need to plan for disasters and vital document recovery, he said.

"Not planning for a disaster is a disaster in itself," he said. "Having a disaster recovery plan is a key component in successfully navigating problems when they occur."

McGuire recommends that a document recovery plan include:

  1. Finding a qualified professional document restoration company.
  2. Stabilizing the damaged materials by freezing damaged documents with a vacuum freeze-drying process. Freezer trailers or a freezer storage facility are employed in the process. Stabilizing the materials prevents further damage and buys time should the decision-making process require more input.
  3. Completing an inventory count of all damaged materials.

If a wet document (damaged by floodwater or a building's fire sprinkler) is flash-frozen within 24 hours, the document can be freeze-dried and returned to the pre-incident condition (even ink signatures are not smudged), said Bobby Williams, director of business continuity for a firm in the financial services industry.

Manufacturers can choose from among several vendors across the U.S. that provide freeze-drying services, Williams said. "The service should be planned in advance to allow the restoration vendor to plan for the volume of documents to ship and recover," he said.

What can manufacturers do prior to a disaster? The best protection of key documents would be to store them at an offsite facility that can adequately protect the documents from loss, destruction, and humidity.

"When selecting your document storage vendor, ensure that the storage vendor already has a relationship with a document restoration company. Even the major document storage vendors experience disasters," Williams advised.

Disaster planning and preparation is a continuous process, said Leo Nov, who is a co-founder of Los Angeles-based RestorationSOS. "We recommend updating the disaster plan as often as changes are made in the facility or supporting staff, but at least once annually," said Nov.

Solutions Don't Have to Be Cutting-Edge

"Ideally, organizations will have a records management plan that includes disaster recovery," said Cheri Baker, who is director of communications at Frederick, Md.-based The Crowley Co., a company specializing in document protection and archival.

"From our standpoint, part of the plan should include backing up critical records to microfilm," she said. "This entails the scanning of said materials if they're hard copy or writing directly from digital. This process is called archive writing and is one of the reasons that microfilm is still a viable preservation commodity today. Stored correctly, microfilm can last up to 500 years. This is disaster recovery and long-term preservation in its simplest form."

Modern tools like SAP Visual Enterprise can help manufacturers protect their documents, said George Earle, who is senior director and global head of SAP's Visual Enterprise Services, based in Newtown Square, Pa.

"Paper manuals are a horrible characteristic of manufacturing," he said. "Design and fabrication plans and service/repair manuals are too often in some 600-page binder that the workers refer to, or on an electronic kiosk on the machine shop floor. Not only is this wildly inefficient, but some type of disaster could wreak havoc on a manufacturing facility or company whose crown jewels of design, fab, and service are on paper or onsite. Even with soft copies available in the cloud that give workers the ability to print out or download a new version after the disaster, this costly and time-consuming method isn't going to work."

Solutions like SAP 3D Visual Enterprise enable a manufacturing organization to get back up instantly after a disaster, Earle said. "3D visualization means if you need to move manufacturing to, say, Mexico, after a disaster in the U.S., language won't be an issue. The product's highly specific graphics and 3D presentation leap language barriers."

The ultimate way to safeguard important paper documents is to store them digitally.

"We often talk about disaster recovery. It's a natural extension of discussions we have with clients about document management systems and the benefits of converting paper-based documents into digital images and data," said Dan Rotelli, president of BIS in Edmond, Okla. "The location of our headquarters within Tornado Alley means that we're all too familiar with how quickly and severely disaster can strike.

"The gist of it is that information contained solely on paper would be lost forever in the event of a fire, flood, or tornado, while digital information stored on servers can be preserved through regular file backups, network redundancies, and other safeguarding measures."

"The best way to protect your information is to make sure it is in a regulated, highly-secure environment with multiple backups and accessible in a variety of formats," said EDM Americas' Byers. "If you have a system that meets those needs, then you can survive anything that comes. If you don't, you're rolling the dice. The basement room filled with boxes of paper and file cabinets is a liability."

Read part one of this series, What Manufacturers Need to Do About Data Recovery After a Disaster.

Read part two of this series, How Manufacturers Can Preserve the Supply Chain After a Disaster.

Read part three of this series, Social Media Tools for Manufacturers in Times of Disaster.

Read part four of this series, Manufacturers Join Consortiums to Help Each Other After a Disaster. 

Michael Keating is senior editor for Government Product News and a contributing editor for American City and County, both published by Penton Media. Read his mid-year 2013 government budget and spending forecast at the Government Product News site. Go here for his IMT 2012 report on how to land government business. His most recent item for IMT was about Mid-year 2013 Update on the Government Market for Manufacturers. Keating has written articles on the government market for more than 100 publications, including USA Today, Sanitary Maintenance, IndustryWeek, and the Costco Connection. Michael can be reached through his website, 


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