Warehouse fire raises questions on perishable public records

A seven-alarm fire wreaked havoc in a New York City warehouse that housed paper records for the city, New York state and a variety of commercial firms is raising important questions for records managers. 

Besides the loss of the paper records, those strolling close to the warehouse could spot private information of individuals in the fire’s debris that included medical records, court transcripts, lawyers’ letters, sonograms and bank checks the CitiStorage Company kept, according to a New York Times report.     

Various municipal agencies housed their records in the CitiStorage facility.  Such records included confidential information such as Social Security numbers and sensitive medical information one might find useful for stealing the identities of others. 

In a release on CitiStorage’s home page, the company assured customers that teams had been dispatched to the site of the fire to retrieve the sensitive documents.  CitiStorage also maintained that an on-site incident command center was established after first responders arrived and that a significant number of documents had been recovered and accounted for. 

“As an early adopter of electronic medical records systems, HHC keeps duplicates of vital patient records in electronic form and we do not anticipate this will affect our operations,” said a spokesman for Health and Hospitals Corporation, which said it housed only older records at the warehouse.

Additionally, the warehouse fire ignited fears of identity theft and data breaches in which hackers might now be able to infiltrate a database to gain even more personal information.       

Electronic record have many advantages over paper ones. They are sharable, searchable and easier to track and back up. They also save office space and support government data transparency efforts.

But moving paper records to an electronic format can seem like a daunting project. Tompkins County in upstate New York found it would be less expensive to digitize records than to build a new records storage center.  The move to electronic records not only saved money and space, but it also improved the county’s document management workflow.

Some agencies have decided not to digitize archival documents, but instead to focus on converting their active paper documents to PDFs and storing them in a content management system.  Agencies that are required to keep records for only a limited number of years can eventually scan their way out of a paper-based system.    

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.


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