Essential records are records that are absolutely essential in order for your agency to carry out its functions, respond to an emergency, resume business operations, protect the health, property, and rights of citizens, preserve the history of communities and families, or those records that would require massive resources to reconstruct. Essential records, also known as vital records, must be protected against loss caused by things such as natural disasters, human error, or negligence, and require special protection strategies, such as backing up systems, or copying and dispersing files off-site. Agencies need to identify essential records and decide how they will protect them in the daily course of business as well as in times of emergency. After deciding, it is imperative that you document and integrate the information into your agency’s records management plans and in your Continuity of Operations (COOP) plan.
Essential records are more than just important records. In order to determine the critical value of a record, and whether is qualifies as essential, you should consider four points:
Examples of essential records include personnel records that show proof of benefits coverage, records that prove land ownership, and records that ensure that deadlines are met, such as grant applications. Each agency must determine for itself the records that would be required to respond to an emergency and to continue carrying out its functions.
After identifying records as essential, assess and document the ways in which they may be at risk from natural emergencies, technological failure, civil hazards (such as theft or vandalism), or lack of organization and management. Then take action to mitigate the potential for damage by making a plan for how you will ensure that the records are not lost. Mitigation strategies include dispersal (distributing copies of essential records to other locations, either during the regular course of business, or specifically for protection purposes), onsite protection (via vaults, safes, and other fire-proof structures), and evacuation (taking the records with you when evacuating an affected area). Document your decisions and strategies, incorporate them into your Continuity of Operations (COOP) plan, implement them into your records management processes, and test them periodically to ensure that current and accurate records are retrievable upon request.