It is the responsibility of all University employees to manage their office's records such that they are protected from unintentional damage or destruction. In spite of all reasonable efforts, disasters with unanticipated consequences sometimes occur and we must act decisively in order to protect the interests of the University and its students, employees, and clients. The basic objectives of document recovery following a disaster are:

  1. Stabilize the environment to prevent further damage to University records
  2. Prioritize recovery of the most vital of the damaged records
  3. Recover as many records as possible in the most cost effective manner possible

Depending on the severity of the emergency, UW Police should be contacted by either calling 911, or their non-emergency line. Next, contact University resources who can help you with recovery. Click here for a list of additional emergency assistance phone numbers. In the event of theft, immediately contact local authorities and change passwords protecting important data.

Taking Action

Coordination of the recovery effort is done both before and after the emergency.


  • Establish an emergency contact list
  • Map the location of vital records
  • If you have paper vital records, identify appropriate supplies and vendors for use in the recovery effort
  • Purchasing supplies which are practical to have on hand


  • Conduct a damage assessment
  • Prioritizing records for recovery
  • Get approval for the purchase of supplies or use of vendors
  • Contact vendors and gather supplies
  • Mobilize a recovery work force
  • Removing damaged records from the contaminated area

Once you regain access to the building, it is very important to begin the recovery of your records as soon as possible after a disaster. The sooner you get to them, the better the chance of recovery.


It is important to document all steps taken during any recovery, no matter the size or extent of damage. This documentation will help later to reevaluate your Vital Records Plan or to verify which records were beyond recovery and were immediately destroyed. Water damage to records starts within the first 8 hours after a disaster. After 24 hours, records will start to stick to each other, and within 48 hours, paper will begin to chemically breakdown and to show the initial stages of fungal growth. With photographic and magnetic/electronic media, the breakdown will begin sooner and can be more devastating.

Safety and Security Precautions

Disaster areas contain hidden hazards such as submerged objects, and severed or loose electrical wires. Use caution in these areas; make sure all electrical equipment is grounded. Standing water, wet carpeting, and wet records make the use of electrical equipment potentially hazardous.

Wet records are heavy. Use caution when lifting them. Wet records can expand enough inside a file cabinet to deform the cabinet, making recovery difficult. If confidential records have been damaged, restoration will need to take place under proper security conditions. Office staff should accompany all confidential records as they are moved. The same level of security that is required during normal operations should be maintained throughout the recovery effort.

Paper Records

When removing paper records from damaged areas, be sure to keep a complete inventory of all records involved. Include type of record, normal location within the filing system and recovery location. All records should eventually be removed from the damaged area. Even if the paper records are not wet, they have been in an area that once did, or may still have, a high humidity level, which can promote mold growth.

Quick tips for removing records from heavily damaged areas:

  • Keep records in the exact order in which they were found.
  • Do not remove records from file folders while packing.
  • If possible, remove file drawers from cabinets or transport the entire cabinet intact. Use extreme caution – weight will be an issue.
  • Use dollies or human chains to remove records. Elevator service is very unlikely following an emergency.
  • Separate the records by type, e.g. paper from film, photos from magnetic tape. Each type of media has unique drying methods.

Recovery of paper records:

  • The first goal of recovery is to bring down temperature and humidity in the contaminated area.
  • Keep rooms containing water-damaged materials well vented to inhibit mold growth. Do NOT use fans – if records become moldy, fans will ensure more records are infected.
  • Keep the temperature as cold as possible in rooms containing water-damaged materials to inhibit mold growth.
  • Sewer damage is considered hazardous waste. Before you can start recovery, the material must be cleaned by biohazard experts. Contact Environmental Health and Safety immediately.
  • Vacuum drying
    • Very expensive
    • Requires special equipment
    • Always performed by a vendor
    • Records are placed in a special chamber from which oxygen and moisture is removed
    • Best used for small volume of only the most Vital Records
    • Contact Records Management Services for help finding a vendor
  • Freeze drying
    • Most common way to recover Vital Records
    • Inexpensive
    • Records are loosely packed and transferred to a freezer facility
    • Over the course of 3 months moisture turns into a vapor and records dry
    • Best used for large volumes of records
    • Contact Records Management Services for help finding a freezer facility


Electronic devices that have experienced damage should be left as is and immediately transferred to a data recovery specialist. Water-damaged systems should be packed in airtight plastic bags. Although it seems counterintuitive, it is best for these hard drives to stay moist until they can be seen by a specialist. Contact UW-IT for assistance.