The cost of pencil whipping your maintenance checks

CarolinaFireJournal - David Cain
David Cain
08/07/2015 -

When money and time are stretched to their limits, shortcuts proliferate. Overtaxed fire crews may begin pencil whipping what they believe are routine tasks involving equipment and apparatus maintenance. While this may seem like a minor issue, in reality it is an insidious disease — because overlooking a small check can explode into big trouble.


We’ve all read stories about what can happen when needed maintenance is not performed. Take the Charlotte Fire Department truck that malfunctioned and overturned on its way to an emergency call in May of 2014. According to WCNC TV, “the crew was headed down a hill on Ardrey Kell Road when the auxiliary brake failed to engage. The truck skidded as the driver attempted to turn the truck right on Bridgehampton Club Drive, and then rolled onto its roof. The truck briefly caught fire after the crash. An internal investigation will be conducted. The damage is estimated to be $800,000.”

Perhaps driver error had something to do with the truck overturning. But the failure of the auxiliary brakes also played a key role. Were the brakes inspected before the call? And just as importantly, was there ironclad documentation supporting the pre-call inspections? Because as the old adage goes, if it’s not documented, it never happened.

In this incident, people were hurt, response was compromised, and a tab close to a million dollars was incurred. On top of that, you can be sure that multiple parties examined the incident, including municipal authorities overseeing the department and no doubt, attorneys looking to determine if dollar damages could be awarded to one or more parties affected by the truck’s rollover.

While this may seem like an extreme case, incidents like these are much more common than you may think. If you’ve been in the fire service long enough, chances are you have at least seen some very close calls due to malfunctioning equipment — air bottles not filled all the way, handhelds running out of power in the middle of a call, power tools not starting, etc. In this line of work, it’s inevitable that equipment will fail at some point. But the hope is to catch it during routine inspections, before you actually need it on a call. That’s why pencil whipping through truck checks can be such a problem.

The harsh reality is that if your crews skip through inspections — or just eyeball them and give it the “OK” — something is going to be missed. And if it does, the scope of the equipment and apparatus failures will be larger and more costly, since minor issues may be easily overlooked. Consequences can range from minor inconveniences to major calamities. Regardless of how critical the malfunction, pencil whipping your maintenance ultimately costs more money to remediate. Plus it takes more time to fix.

So in the long run, the very reasons that pencil whipping happens in first place — to save time and money — actually become its biggest casualties.

David Cain is a retired deputy chief with the Boulder (CO) Fire Department, where he served for 34 years. He works as a consultant for, a technology service that helps fire departments across the country automate their apparatus, equipment and inventory checks.
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