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Email snafu a 'catastrophe' for Island County prosecutor

It didn't bring offices to a complete standstill, but a catastrophic failure of Island County government's email server disrupted work for nearly a week and could mean the loss of voluminous data.

The incident also serves as an illustration of just how dependent organizations have become on information technology.

County Budget Director Elaine Marlow, who's recently became the interim director of information technology, described the email breakdown during a roundtable discussion with elected officials and department heads Monday morning. In return, she got an earful from one elected official who's been especially hamstrung by the problem.

"Catastrophe is not an overstatement," Prosecutor Greg Banks said.

The email server, Marlow said, broke down on the night of Jan. 10 and email wasn't restored until Jan. 14. County staff members spent the week unable to send or receive email messages. The sheriff's office, for example, couldn't send out a press release about the identity of a body that washed up in Greenbank.

But when the system was finally up and running, many employees discovered that all the email that had been sent and received over the last six months was gone, along with calendar information and data within certain applications.

Marlow explained that the email wasn't backed up because of "laxity in following established backup protocols."

In response, Banks said it's "mind-boggling" that there wasn't a backup server for email, which is standard practice for just about any organization.

"The stuff that wasn't done was so basic. It's incomprehensible to me that that's the state of affairs we've come to," he said.

Banks said he and others have raised concerns about such issues for years, but have been falsely reassured by the IT department that everything was taken care of. He also complained that he was left in the dark about the email problems while the system was down.

Marlow said the broken server was taken to a computer consultant in Bellevue to try to retrieve the lost email. She's not sure it will work, but pointed out that the FBI and police officers seem to be able to recover deleted information from computers.

"Maybe I've been watching too much TV," she joked.

In addition, Marlow explained that some employees had been saving their email to a different server, while hand-held devices also archived old messages. In all, she estimated only 25 percent of employees lost all of their email for the last six months.

Unfortunately, the prosecutor's office was one of those departments most affected. Banks explained that his attorneys send out and sometimes receive discovery materials through email. They communicate with attorneys, victims, witnesses, cops and the public through email.

In addition, Banks said he lost his all-important calendar, which keeps track of court dates and meetings.

"The worst thing is you don't know what you don't have," he said.

For the public, the loss means that thousands of public records could be lost forever.

In response to the crisis, Marlow said the IT department is taking steps to ensure the stability of the email system. The IT staff will add a "hot spare" backup server, do an email upgrade, improve the configuration of the system and work with the county's technology committee to improve policies, Marlow said. But she pointed out that the small department doesn't have a full-time director and lost positions in budget cuts.

Banks asked the commissioners to hire a consultant to fix the problems. Marlow pointed out that the county has advertised the IT technical lead position and it's expected to be filled in early February.

"As an organization, our IT department has very good people," Marlow said. "We just need to make sure we have the right policies and practices in place."

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