Pounds of Prevention: Fire Protection in Records Management
Fire presents a serious threat to an organization’s business records. Throughout history, outbreaks of fire—both accidental and deliberate—have destroyed valuable archives and, in some cases, profoundly impacted individuals and businesses for decades afterward.
While many solutions exist to mitigate this threat, they differ widely in cost and effectiveness. Many records management authorities, including Abraxas, believe the best means of protecting records is by minimizing the risk of fire occurring in the first place. This approach includes robust prevention and detection measures, effective suppression techniques and thoroughly tested emergency response procedures.
In this paper, Abraxas weighs its systems against the industry’s experiences, regulations and best practices in preventing fires, suppressing them should they happen, and responding effectively to protect and recover records exposed to fire and/or water.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So advised 18th century American statesman Benjamin Franklin. While not specific to records management, his counsel applies and remains sage—perhaps nowhere better than in protecting against fire, where an aggressive focus on prevention, in concert with response and recovery, makes a crucial difference.
It is ironic that for some of the earliest archives in existence, fire was used as a preservative, baking the smartphone-sized clay writing tablets of the ancient Sumerians. In contrast, most of history has beheld fire as a destroyer of records. The great Library of Alexandria in Egypt, where much of the ancient world’s knowledge was stored, was ruined by fire as many as three times, notably in 48 BC when Julius Caesar ignited his ships in dock and the blaze spread uncontrolled. Far more recently, the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center near St. Louis wiped out more than 16 million military personnel files, impacting the lives of veterans to this day.
Though there are many risks to archives and documents, fire remains among the most serious because of its permanence. A file that is incinerated is gone forever. Mitigating that risk is a primary concern among most archivists and records managers; they learn quickly that the solution is complex and multifaceted.
THE MEANING OF ‘FIREPROOF’
When individuals want to protect their vital records—birth certificates, insurance papers, passports and the like—they often purchase a safe or lock box that is labeled “fireproof.” These items are expensive but deemed worth the price for the peace of mind they engender.
A similar mindset emerges when an organization seeks to safeguard its important records and documents. While it is true that fireproof options are available; they are also costly. A 1.2-cubic-foot fireproof container can cost $200, or 100 times that of a non-fireproof one. Keeping a standard carton in a fireproof container at a records storage facility may run $50 a year, not counting intake fees, compared to $6 for standard storage.
Expense is, of course, a subjective measure. It may make sense for a company to store its most crucial records in a fireproof-rated container, despite the cost. At the same time, it is important to understand what the word “fireproof” means.
A fireproof container earns a rating based on tests of how long it protects its contents from damage according to temperature and time. The ratings relied upon most are the classifications by Underwriters Laboratory—Class 350 for paper, Class 150 for magnetic tape and Class 125 for digital media.
The UL numbers correspond to the temperatures (in Fahrenheit) at which those materials are subject to severe damage. For example, a Class 350 fireproof container is tested to ensure its internal temperature stays beneath 350 degrees Fahrenheit when its exterior is exposed to extreme heat for a specified time period (1,550-2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes to four hours, depending on the type of container).
A container with a Class 350 Four Hour rating should provide exceptional protection of documents. However, even that is not impervious to fire; if the flames are hot enough and the fire blazes long enough, anything will burn. For example, the furnishings in an average household will burn at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to overwhelm most metal containers, including some fire-rated ones.
For a records storage facility, another measure of protection is fireproof construction—a building or portion of a building designed to minimize the chances of fire breaking out or of allowing a fire to spread. Like fireproof containers, no facility is guaranteed to never burn, but there are construction methods and materials that reduce the risk greatly.
Fireproof structures aren’t a new idea. In Charleston, S.C., stands the Fireproof Building, a community records facility built in 1827 and considered the oldest fireproof structure in the United States. (While it suffered major damage in a 1961 blaze, its archives were preserved.) Today, various standards and codes determine how “fireproof” a building is, from firewalls and fire-rated doors to closed stairwells and fire-resistant materials.
While fireproofing is a key element in protecting records from fire, it isn’t a singular solution. Once the scope and limitations of fireproofing are understood, the need for a broader approach to protecting records and documents from fire becomes clear.
LESSONS FROM 1973
Experts seeking to protect vital records gained a whole new perspective on July 12, 1973, when fire erupted in the National Personnel Records Center near St. Louis. The six-story facility had no firewalls, no sprinkler system to fight the fire—managers feared the potential for water damage more than they did flames—and no alarm system to detect smoke or heat. The blaze wiped out 80 percent of U.S. Army discharge records from 1912-1960, 75 percent of U.S. Air Force discharge records from 1947-1964, and a large number of personnel files for the Army Reserves. The loss was so devastating that, 40 years later, the partial files that survived are considered so important that they are still being pieced together. 
The 1973 fire led industry and government leaders, including the Society of American Archivists, the American Records Management Association, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), to develop best practices and strict rules for records storage that address the risk of fire and how to properly protect information.
The approach taken by Abraxas aligns with, and in many cases exceeds, these standards by applying four crucial elements:
Keeping the risk of a fire outbreak as low as possible is the best and most effective investment. Abraxas applies preventative controls as guided by industry standards such as ISO 15489, NFPA 232 and NARA 44 U.S.C 2907. These range from facility design to comprehensive preventative practices.
POUNDS OF PREVENTION
Prevention begins with the design of a facility. For example, Abraxas’ buildings, which are relatively large, are considered Class 1 Commodities under NFPA standards, i.e., brick and steel construction. The facilities are free-standing, meaning they are not connected to nor share land space with other buildings, thus reducing the risk of fire from neighboring buildings. Inside, the structures are divided into sections by brick walls and Class A fire-rated doors. Further, all electrical wiring is run through fire-rated conduit, which protects electrical conductors from environmental harm while reducing the risk of electrically generated fires.
Prevention and detection meet in the form of a comprehensive array of smoke and fire detectors, i.e., devices able to detect flames, heat, visible smoke and particulates. These detectors connect to the alarm system and can alert security, fire and police responders.
Good preventative and response practices must be part of that mix as well, starting with the commitment of management and spreading throughout the workforce. At Abraxas, these practices include the following:
These practices meet management objectives to anticipate and pre-empt fires that otherwise could result from accident, negligence, improper handling, unsafe or poorly maintained work environment, or lack of accountability and response.
Still, even the best preventative systems and an engaged workforce cannot guarantee that a fire will never occur. Rapid response is vital, with controls being deployed immediately should a fire be detected, extinguishing the blaze and stopping its spread.
Abraxas utilizes a comprehensive network of water sources including municipal, a pond and well to supply automatic overhead water sprinklers designed according to NFPA 13 standards. The system utilizes an onsite water retention tank, pump house and diesel generator. Invented in 1874, automatic sprinklers are relatively simple, and experts agree that wet-based systems are the most reliable and effective way to fight a fire in a records center.
There are other suppression systems used by records storage vendors, including gaseous (e.g., Halon, carbon dioxide, heptafluoropropane, argon-nitrogen mix) and high-exposure foam. However, these are far more expensive than water sprinklers and present a supply concern: if a non-water system runs dry before extinguishing a fire, there is little or no chance of refilling it in time.
Water, of course, poses its own challenges to paper and other forms of records. It was concern over potential water damage that prompted the builders of the NPRC facility to reject an automatic sprinkler system, leading to tragic losses in the 1973 fire. Compare that decision to that of Archives II, NARA’s most recent federal records facility. Opened in 1997 in College Park, Md., Archives II is equipped with state-of-the-art fire detection and suppression technology—key among them being the proven, wet-pipe automatic sprinkler system.
While there are other types of water sprinkler systems (e.g., cyclic, pre-action, dry-pipe), the wet-pipe approach remains the gold standard for reliability.,
Abraxas mitigates the risk of water damage in several ways:
Given the potential of fire to destroy records completely, prevention is the best means of mitigating the risk. A balanced, far-reaching approach of preventative controls, detection, rapid response and robust disaster recovery is essential, with special emphasis on facilities, systems and personnel engagement to keep a fire from starting in the first place.
Abraxas has achieved that balance by applying careful research, experience, resources, best practices and relevant regulations, then constantly testing its processes to ensure they are effective. Without a documented, rigorously tested, full-spectrum fire prevention system, claims that records are fire-protected records can be proven only by being disproven. That is a risk no organization can afford to take.
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 Cuneiform, Sumerian Tablets and The World’s Oldest Writing, Facts And Details, http://factsanddetails.com/world.php?itemid=1525, retrieved 2 July 2013.
 Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 49.6, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html#49, retrieved 2 July 2013.
 The 1973 Fire, National Personnel Records Center, http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/military-personnel/fire-1973.html, retrieved 2 July 2013.
 UL 72, Standard for Tests for Fire Resistance of Record Protection Equipment, Underwriters Laboratory, ed. 15 (31 May 2001), http://www.ul.com/global/eng/pages/solutions/standards/accessstandards/catalogofstandards/standard/?id=72_15, retrieved 3 July 2013.
 There is another set of standards, the Korean Industrial Standards, which is based on testing containers exposed to 1,852 degrees Fahrenheit for up to two hours. A number of private labs offer their own ratings as well. However, most experts agree UL testing is the most complete.
 “Metal storage may not be as fire-resistant as you think,” Orlando Sentinel, reprinted in Chicago Tribune, 28 April 1985, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-04-28/news/8501260209_1_safe-deposit-box-randy-tuten-safes-and-vaults, retrieved 4 July 2013.
 The History of the Fireproof Building in Charleston, S.C., http://www.helium.com/items/1476974-the-history-of-the-fireproof-building-in-charleston-sc, retrieved 4 July 2013.
 “Labor of love and duty at St. Louis County records center after 1973 fire,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8 February 2012, http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/searching-for-treasure-at-military-records-center/article_ed6db9a4-268e-5a67-ab3c-d1df72c1aef2.html, retrieved 3 July 2013.
 Archives II: Using Technology to Safeguard Archival Records, National Archives and Records Administration Technical Paper No. 13 (1997), pp. 18-23, http://www.archives.gov/preservation/technical/tip13.pdf, retrieved 2 July 2013.
 NFPA 232, Standard for the Protection of Records, http://www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/document-information-pages?mode=code&code=232.
 NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, http://www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/document-information-pages?mode=code&code=13&DocNum=13.
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