By Tom McGuire
One of the greatest threats to a building during water infiltration is often overlooked: the potentially irreparable damage to paper documents, microfiche, film, and other records that become wet, soaked, and/or soiled. Serious implications can arise with the loss of critical information, severely compromising records history, operational effectiveness, and pre-incident service levels, and even placing some companies in breach of document-retention laws.
One key to successful recovery is the response time of your restoration provider. Any delay in the decision to dry these materials can result in permanent loss. Inks can break down, making the text illegible; dirt, grime, and micro-organisms can penetrate the paper; and mold and mildew can grow quickly on water-soaked documents. Drying techniques must be employed as soon as possible to eliminate the moisture that fungi use as a food source to grow; otherwise, the microbiological contamination, and the associated objectionable odors, will make recovery more difficult and expensive.
To accelerate response, it's best to plan ahead by creating a disaster-recovery plan (DRP). A DRP defines and prioritizes the recovery and restoration of areas within a facility, and details immediate next steps. It also designates the professional restoration provider that should be contacted when an incident occurs.
Preselecting a contractor ensures that building owners and facility managers will have a partner in the reclamation process so they can move rapidly to begin recovery work within the first 24 hours - a critical timeframe when it comes to minimizing the effects of water.
These are the services you should stipulate from a document-recovery firm:
- Consulting. The project scope should be provided at the front end. The firm should be able to quantify the damage, determine what can be saved, and recommend a process to follow.
- Project management. The company should be able to quickly assemble a cohesive work team, provide rapid emergency-response time, provide a turnkey operation for recovery and restoration, and guarantee results.
- Stabilization. The provider should take the necessary steps to stabilize the documents quickly and assist with relocation efforts to a facility for processing. The process of salvaging water-damaged documents typically begins with freezing; this stage also buys time for the restoration decision-making process to take place.
- Freezing. To halt deterioration, and for optimum recovery success, the provider should be able to freeze documents within the first 24 to 48 hours. Freezer-equipped truck trailers or blast freezers are used for this stage, and the frozen materials are stored until the drying procedure begins. Blast freezing is another successful technique that the provider should offer to kill bug infestations.
- Drying. The recovery firm should utilize technical experts and high-tech equipment during the drying phase. Depending on the type and extent of damage, and the materials, one of two primary methods may be used and should be offered: desiccant drying or vacuum freeze-drying. Desiccant drying involves moving stabilized documents from packing cases and placing them on racks and shelves in a large, vault-like room. Through the use of desiccant dehumidification, the room atmosphere is maintained at somewhere between 68 and 78 degrees F., and 12-percent humidity. Desiccant dehumidifiers use changing vapor pressures to dry air continuously in a repeating cycle. The continuously moving dry air created in the room should remove moisture from documents in 1 to 7 days. Vacuum freeze-drying is used when documents, such as books or journals, tend to warp or distort during desiccant drying. In such cases, it's important to save not only the paper, but also the integrity of the binding. The frozen materials are placed in an airtight chamber where negative vacuum pressure is introduced. This causes moisture in the documents to turn to gas. The gas is then expelled from the chamber, where it‘s condensed into liquid and discarded. As a result, the documents go from a frozen state to a dry state without ever returning to the liquid state. It's important to note that, if books are severely distorted, vacuum drying alone will not return the books to a useable state. Rebinding or re-casing may be needed. Your recovery provider should be able to determine what needs to be done.
- Cleaning and disinfecting. Cleaning is a critical process that should be offered by trained and seasoned professionals. Cleaning removes dirt, grime, and, most importantly, fungi spores. Staff should have the ability to clean each document using specialized rubber sponges and scrub pads, but avoid the application of liquid solutions that would reactivate the moisture and cause further damage to the materials.
- Inventory and sorting. Once documents are cleaned, they should be assembled into new boxes, relabeled according to the inventory, and returned to the owner.
Selecting the Right Firm
It's essential to have properly trained cleaning and restoration technicians and management staff oversee your recovery project. Some providers will use temporary labor; others will utilize seasoned professionals who have 5 to 10 years of experience. This experience ensures that your questions are properly answered and your expectations are met, so it's a good quality to look for.
A quick summary of what a qualified document center should offer: blast freezing, which freezes quickly and kills bacteria; stabilization or the capacity to freeze documents to mitigate damage; cleaning; desiccant air drying; vacuum freeze-drying; and secure document storage.
Organizations should also consider the provider's expected turnaround time. Some restoration firms have backlogs due to the technology being used.
Researching Providers and References
The provider-assessment process should include a review of experience, reputation, and references. Review websites to learn about capabilities, read the case histories on the site to find out what kinds of projects they've done, and contact company representatives to discuss your facility's needs.
Find other organizations that have used the service provider(s) you're considering and ask the organizations these questions:
- What was your problem and what results did the restoration service achieve?
- What was the response time of the service provider?
- Did the service provider give a written scope of work and budget?
- Does the service provider have a priority plan that guarantees immediate service?
- Is turnkey service provided?
- Are stabilization, vacuum freeze-drying, desiccant dry chamber, blast freezing, and refrigerated transportation and storage capabilities available?
- Does the restoration firm offer gamma radiation services for documents that have been exposed to black or grey water?
- Was the service provider on budget?
- Was the organization pleased with the service provider?
- Would the organization use the service provider again?
By following these guidelines, you can minimize the significant threat that a water-damage event can pose to your vital documents.
Tom McGuire is national catastrophe operations and document recovery manager at Munters Moisture Control Services, based in Amesbury, MA.