VA strikes gold, stores agencies' data in old mine

Veterans Affairs Department officials see no decline in the government's demand for
off-site storage, in spite of and partly because of digital technologies.

The VA Office of Information Resources Management (OIRM) runs a successful business
storing not just government-generated paper and microform records but also tapes, floppy
diskettes and CD-ROM disks.

The VA Records Center and Vault took on six agencies as new customers in 1997, said
Donald Neilson, director of OIRM's Information Management Service. And a windfall might
come from the current review of the government's policy on retaining electronic records.

A federal judge has ruled that destruction of e-mail and other computerized records
without thorough review is illegal and must stop (see story, Page 3).

The Justice Department is reviewing that ruling, Neilson said, but "if the law
stands per that order, everyone will need to maintain more and more records."

Digital and paper media have the same requirements for long-term storage, said Genie
McCully, chief operating officer of the self-financing VA Records Center and Vault.
Neither type of media can tolerate extreme temperatures or humidity.

The underground records center in southwestern Missouri has a constant 67 degrees
Fahrenheit and 45 percent relative humidity, McCully said. The former mine site can store
up to 1.5 million square feet of records.

Vital records, critical backups and classified information are retrieved using the
government-owned Records Management Automated Tracking System, Neilson said.

The Clipper database application runs under MS-DOS on a self-contained Ethernet
client-server network of 166-MHz Pentium PCs running Microsoft Windows 95.

REMATS has a good track record, Neilson said. The Resolution Trust Corp. developed and
first used it in the 1980s to keep records for failed savings and loan companies. The
application pinpoints the warehouse location of each individual box via bar code labels.

"We can always find your record," he said.

The secret of a good record-tracking system, Neilson said, is a good bar code scanner

McCully's staff participates once a year in what she called a contingency plan timing
drill, which tests how fast one government agency can retrieve its records and bring up
its entire computer operation at a remote hot site.

Contact the VA Records Center at 202-273-8010.

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