Fighting – and Preventing – Fires in Records Storage

Assessing Records Management Risk

How important is the right fire suppression system to protecting stored documents? Consider this: A blaze that destroyed part of a federal storage facility in 1973 is still causing headaches today.

The huge fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Overland, Mo., 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. In total, more than 16 million files were destroyed or damaged. Even after 40 years, the NPRC is still trying to piece together those records.

Tragically, the NPRC building lacked adequate fire suppression, such as fire-rated walls, automatic sprinklers and smoke detectors. Since then, the U.S. government has established strict rules for federal records storage that addresses the risk of fire and how to properly protect information.

Whether keeping files in-house or offsite, records managers should ensure that storage facilities have the best protections possible against fire.

Buildings and infrastructure should be designed to minimize fire risk. That includes having walls, floors and roofs that are fire-resistant. Walls, for example, ought to be rated for containing a blaze at least two to four hours. Doors should have a Class A rating. Sources of heat or flammable materials should be kept away from files. Furnishings made of combustible materials are best kept at a minimum.

Both detection and suppression systems should be designed by a licensed fire protection engineer and be tested regularly following standards such as ISO 15489, NFPA 232, and NARA 44 U.S.C 2907.

Fire detectors can pick up flames or heat from a fire. Smoke detectors come in two types: photoelectric, which detect visible smoke; and ionization, which activate sooner by picking up particulates in the air. Whatever the type of detector used, it should be connected to an alarm system that alerts a security service as well as fire and police responders.

Automatic firefighting systems also come in various types:

  • Sprinklers, which discharge water when a fire is detected. Invented in 1874, automatic sprinklers are considered the most reliable and efficient way to fight a fire. The systems are relatively simple and typically have an abundant supply of water. In fact, 99 percent of commercial and industrial fires are fought by water sprinkling systems. While water poses its own challenges, a reputable and high-quality disaster recovery/business continuity vendor can offer recovery support in the event of water damage.
  • Gaseous, which includes a number of inert gases and chemical compounds that suppress heat or oxygen. A gaseous system poses far less risk to the files themselves. However, some of the substances used – such as carbon dioxide, heptafluoropropane or an argon-nitrogen mixture – bring significant health risks to people, including death, while others pose environmental concerns. Also, these systems are more expensive and require onsite tanks that must provide enough gas to suppress a fire of any size.
  • High Exposure Foam, which allows water to create a foam blanket on a fire source. Developed in 1984, the water/foam blanket extinguishes through a combined method of cooling the fire and smothering vapors. This is the most costly form of fire suppression, and foam systems are often so sensitive that they generate frequent (and expensive) false alarms.

Records storage buildings may use either or both of these systems depending on the types of files stored, size of the facility and other factors.

Other important attributes to a well-protected storage facility are handheld fire extinguishers using either high-pressure water or dry powder, minimum classification II A:10B:C; a stringent no-smoking policy; and regular staff training and drills.

Fortunately, record-destroying fires are uncommon. Keeping that way means ensuring the right tools and techniques are in place to keep the flames at bay. If you store your records offsite, your vendor partner should be able to provide building and system specifications, preventative maintenance plans and documentation, copies of security system contracts and history of fire alarm response, and proof of their diligence in a Disaster Recovery Business Continuity Plan.

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Abraxas provides safe, well-designed records storage facilities with an excellent, reliable fire protection systems. We provide clients with tailored records and information management solutions, delivering the business intelligence that matters most — and we do it more efficiently and reliably than anyone else, particularly in highly regulated industries. To learn more, email or call us: 866.535.0016 (toll-free) or 269.226.0016.