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America's record hurricane season likely destroyed the records and vital documents of many businesses. And as demonstrated time and again just this fall, Banker's Boxes locked in an office closet were no match for tornadoes and wildfires.

But even the more common occurrences of theft and arson prove a business's records need to be protected and duplicated for offsite safekeeping.

Tom Klem, a fire investigative and protective engineer, said that in too many cases, operators are

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under-prepared when such maladies strike, be they massive or minor. And those who have good insurance policies can expect to suffer greatly if they didn't protect the essential documents verifying the condition of the enterprise prior to the calamity.

"It's usually six months before you can get back into business after a significant fire," said Klem, owner of TJ Klem & Associates in Boston. "With everything that's gone on with the weather alone in the last three months, operators should be thinking of what they can do to have a better plan for an event like that. How many business owners can afford to be closed for six months?"

Shakey's franchisee Chuck Wilburn never had to close his business after multiple robberies, but the persistent thieves, who visited his Redwood Shores, Calif., restaurant three times, stole money and forced him to spend more on beefing up security.

"The first time, they took a sledgehammer to the office door, busted into the filing cabinet, cleaned it out and were out of here in 47 seconds," said Wilburn, whose security system videotaped the theft. The speed at which the burglars moved convinced him it was an inside job. "After that, I went out and bought a serious drop safe and a FireKing filing cabinet, which is like Fort Knox. I have computer disks and all kinds of sensitive records in there, and I suppose if they wanted to get in, they could. But it won't be quickly. My whole philosophy is to slow them down long enough to get the police there."

It was an accident

According to the National Fire Prevention Association, cooking-related fires are the most common reason why restaurants burn down. Be it due to an accident, poorly maintained hoods or inadequate fire suppression systems, such fires spread quickly because of the abundance of combustible materials within a restaurant. And as restaurants progressively get smaller, the distance between the fire and the records cache decreases, which increases the chances vital records will be damaged.

An operator without a good plan to protect or restore his business's records is taking a huge risk, Klem said. So he advises his clients to create a detailed plan that includes offsite storage or duplication of valuable documents such as insurance polices, sales records and running inventories. When it comes time to settle a claim,

Not all safes are equal

If you want a tough safe, look for the "time rating." According to FKI Security Group's Steve Aronson, a safe's durability is based on the number of minutes it can hold off a burglar's intrusion, such as 5 minutes, 15 minutes and 30 minutes.

"How they rate them is pretty interesting. They hire a professional safe cracker and let him study the safe — even give him the plans. The clock starts when he's got a tool and is working on the safe. As soon as he takes the tool away from the safe, the clock stops."

A safe that survives a 5-minute attack is deemed effective for residential security, and one that survives a 30-minute attack is for serious commercial applications.

the more information you have to substantiate your losses, the better the payout will be.

Klem said a records protection plan begins with identification of all vital records, both hardcopy and electronic. Consider which must be kept onsite and which could be stored elsewhere. To be safe, duplicate hardcopies where feasible. For documents that remain onsite, store them in fireproof cabinets and preferably in rooms with fire-suppression systems.

Modern fireproof cabinets are self-sealing when exposed to the heat of a fire, and that also protects against water damage when automatic sprinklers turn on, said Steve Aronson, director of marketing at FKI Security Group, maker of FireKing safes and cabinets in New Albany, Ind. "If the fire department sprays it with water or it falls through the floor and into water, it'll be fine because it's sealed" by the heat. Fireproof safes and cabinets, he added, are insulated with gypsum, which, when heated, expands to fill the joints and seams of the box. A protective exterior liner also is heat activated.

Fireproof storage tools aren't flood proof, however.

"If it gets flooded because a levy breaks, it's not that protected because there's no heat to activate the seals," Aronson said. "That's another good reason for having some offsite storage."

With advances in POS systems and increased broadband access to the Internet, electronic document storage is increasingly easier. Many POS systems are configured to duplicate records both on multiple computers within a restaurant and send them offsite as well.

"We basically have three forms of back-up with our systems," said Gary Peek, president of Intura Solutions, a POS developer in Arlington, Texas. "All of our servers in the store have dual hard drives — some are mirrored and some are not — and we also back-up nightly to one of the other stations in the store to have a complete database copy on premise. Then our enterprise mechanism sends any data the operator wants off premise to another location."

POS systems also produce tape and CD rewrite back-ups, the latter of which is more stable, Peek said.

Aronson said the increased amount of delicate computer media commonly kept onsite at a pizza store requires special protection as well. Whereas most paper won't burn until the temperature rises to 400 F, computer media can be destroyed at 125 F.

"Offsite storage is a good solution for computer media, but most businesses today want immediate access to that media," he said. "We have data safes that keep temperatures below 125 degrees and humidity levels below 80 percent."

Klem and Aronson both stressed that operators have offsite duplicates of daily sales records and current inventory. Most operations have thousands of dollars in perishable food in the house, and having proof it was lost in a fire will help increase an insurance claim.

"You're going to have to provide necessary documentation when the insurance company asks, 'How much business were you doing?'" Klem said. "Having proof of your inventory at the time of the fire can make a huge difference in terms of an appropriate settlement of your claim."

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