Today’s Burning Question: We were cleaning out some of our office storage cabinets and found we have paper copies of our incident reports that go back into the 70’s. How long do we need to legally keep these reports?
Answer: Fire reports need to be maintained as long as state law mandates, and perhaps longer if the reports are relevant to a legal proceeding (civil or criminal). Each state has a record retention requirement for anything that constitutes a public record. Public records must be maintained for the duration of the prescribed record retention period, or the department could face penalties.
While in general most states are somewhat similar in their requirements, they are not identical. For example, here in Rhode Island, fire reports must be maintained for ten (10) years, unless they involve first-, second-, or third-degree arson charges, in which case they must be maintained permanently. Here is the RI schedule:
Arizona’s record retention schedule says six (6) years. https://azlibrary.gov/sites/default/files/arm-all-general-schedules_2019-12-16.pdf
Florida’s record retention schedule says seven (7) years.
Ohio Retention schedule says ten (10) years.
South Carolina Retention schedule says ten (10) years.
Texas record retention schedule says five (5) years.
Some states also require that fire reports involving fatalities be retained permanently.
So what is your next step? Once you determine what your state law requires, you need to identify all of the reports that involve incidents that your state law requires you to retain. This may be no easy undertaking (which explains why no one has addressed the issue previously). You will also have to identify those reports that involve pending litigation. Your local legal counsel should be enlisted to assist you with this.
Depending on how much information there is to go through, you may want to ask if it would be possible to simply scan all the paper reports into a computer or secure archive, and retain them electronically… Modern scanners do a great job and are capable of creating files that are searchable… It is just a suggestion, but if your attorney agrees it may save you a lot of time as opposed to combing through each incident report.
You should also meet with your legal counsel and develop a formal record retention policy so years from now your successors do not have to wrestle with a similar problem.