Thursday, February 5, 2015

Fire at CitiStorage warehouse, Brooklyn

Last Friday, a CitiStorage records storage warehouse in Brooklyn caught fire. The facility housed tens of thousands of cubic feet of records created by several New York City agencies, including the Administration for Children's Services, the Health and Hospitals Corporation, the Department of Environmental Protection, , and the Department of Correction; earlier reports that the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development also had records at the facility have turned out to be incorrect. In addition, it may have housed records created by courts that are part of New York State's Unified Court System; however, some or all of these records may have been stored at an adjacent CitiStorage facility unaffected by the fire. In addition, approximately 300 cubic feet of archival UJA Federation records were destroyed by the blaze; fortunately, the bulk of the federation's archival records had been taken out of the warehouse and transferred to the American Jewish Historical Society well before the fire began.

With the exception of the UJA Federation records, it seems that most of the records destroyed in or dispersed by the fire were ultimately slated for destruction. However, some of them contain information that is restricted under state or federal law -- and the ferocity of the fire, firefighters' efforts to combat the blaze, and weather conditions scattered large quantities of them all over the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Records found on the streets and waterfront of Williamsburg included "charred medical records, court transcripts, lawyers’ letters, sonograms, bank checks" and a host of other documents containing personal medical, financial, and legal data. Some were marked "confidential," and some contained Social Security Numbers. The City of New York has dispatched contractors to retrieve and securely destroy as many of these records as possible, but "scavengers and artists" and other area residents are also picking up the documents they encounter.

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article that, in an roundabout way, questioned why city agencies "would store thousands of paper records in cardboard boxes stacked floor to ceiling" and why medical records were housed in a commercial storage facility.

As a records professional, I couldn't help but roll my eyes. We place boxes of records on shelves not only to maximize space but also to minimize the impact of fire; stacked boxes of records catch fire more slowly than stacks of loose papers. We generally use cardboard boxes not only because they are cheap and practical but also because they provide records with a modest degree of protection from water used to combat fire and because, unlike plastic, it won't melt.

As far as use of commercial storage facilities is concerned, I would much rather have records stored in a clean, secure, climate-controlled, and adequately fire-protected facility than in some government buildings I have visited. (Of course, one might question whether the CitiStorage warehouse was an appropriate choice: it's literally a stone's throw away from the East River -- in an area that may have experienced some flooding as a result of Hurricane Sandy -- and close to an oil refinery. However, no storage facility is ideal, and cost and convenience may have made CitiStorage seem like a reasonable choice.)

Investigators are still trying to figure out what caused the fire, which was actually the second of two fires reported at the facility last Saturday morning, and why the building's sprinkler system didn't douse it before it got out of control. At the time of this writing, it seems unlikely that the fire was deliberately set.

I'm not helping to respond to this disaster, and at the risk of passing on misinformation I'm not going to say much about the response effort. However, I do know that records professionals from multiple government agencies are actively working to assess losses and determine how best to deal with damaged records and that more information will emerge as this effort progresses.

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