The 411 for a Paper 911

file8861269862371Earlier this month two incidents happened that caused me to pause and think about our readiness for a paper emergency. What’s that? My definition ranges from the basic emergency: when you need something and can’t find it; to the more serious: when you can’t access documents because you are injured or your home/office is damaged by fire, flood or some unpredictable calamity.

What happened you ask? First, one recent afternoon I pulled into my driveway and minutes later my street was overrun by ladder trucks and fire and rescue vehicles. Smoke was billowing out of all corners of my neighbor’s roof, across the street. The owner and her children had come home minutes before me to find their house engulfed in smoke. Luckily no one was injured, but a shopping bag smoldering for hours on an unattended stove flame caused serious damage to the property. If this happened to you, with a serious risk of fire, would your important personal papers and documents be safe?

Next, that same week, I learn of a colleagues’ scary brush with carbon monoxide poisoning – which happened on the job in the home of an organizing client. A malfunctioning detector failed to alert them to odorless poisonous gas emitting from a damaged furnace. Not until my friend buckled at the knees did she realize something was terribly wrong. Thankfully both individuals were treated and suffered no lasting effects. My friend shared her story in an effort to raise awareness of being prepared for a medical emergency such as this. If this happened to you, would your loved ones know where to locate your medical and legal paperwork such as a health care directive or living will?

When I work with clients on household or business paper management projects, the primary goal we work toward is finding what you need when you need it. Even if you don’t yet have a clearly organized system in place, these simple steps will help you feel confident that you can access what you need in the event an emergency arises:

Get your papers all in one place. If you keep important documents in several locations – whether they are in drawers, boxes or piles (at the office, in the basement or in a bedroom drawer), corral them in one place to inventory what you will require in an emergency. A short list of documents to have at your fingertips includes vital records (birth certificates, passports), insurance documents, wills and advance directives and any pertinent medical, legal or financial records.

Communicate the location. It’s one thing for you to know where your records are stored, but does anyone else? Be sure that ‘knowledge transfer’ is complete once you inventory your papers – tell your spouse, a family member, or another trusted person where to find things if you are the primary document manager. If your files are largely stored electronically in a secure location, be sure to share enough information so your designated representative can access them (links, login credentials and passwords). If you store your go-to documents in a fire-proof safe, make sure someone else knows where to locate the key or combination.

Create a backup. If your documents are mostly paper, be sure a photocopy is stored with your designated representative or at a safe offsite location. For electronic records there are many easy options to safely duplicate items; pick one resource and routinely create a backup – physical and/or cloud-based (both recommended). Store a portable hard drive at an offsite location in addition to using free or low-cost web-based tools such as Dropbox, Carbonite or BackBlaze for electronic file backup.

By performing these basic planning steps, you will be protected from information loss if an emergency situation arises and you need immediate access to your documents.

What is one thing you can do this week to ensure your files are secure?

If you have a great system in place and wish to share resources you use, I would love to hear about them in the comments!