Apparatus checklists: Tips and tricks to make them work for you

Don’t just pencil-whip that form; take the time to get it right


Most of us have interacted with a truck check form at some point in our career, helping ensure we literally check all the required items on an apparatus so we can be confident it's ready for a response. But we also know how easy it is to pencil-whip that form, rapid-fire box-checking to complete the task.

It’s time to scrap the mindless “check the box” mentality to ensure we’re getting the most out of the process and the tool as we seek to accomplish routine tasks and navigate escalating emergencies. As such, here are some questions to consider:

  • Is your truck checklist doing serving the crew to the fullest potential?
  • What if your truck checklist could be more than just a simple list?
  • What if it could increase safety margin and serve a critical role in training?
  • And what’s your process when you get a new apparatus?
Creating a checklist can be a simple process of taking an inventory of your equipment and adding room for notes.
Creating a checklist can be a simple process of taking an inventory of your equipment and adding room for notes.

How to use an apparatus checklist

If you have been through an apparatus purchasing process, you know the countless hours spent checking specs and attending meetings and factory visits, all culminating in delivery and final acceptance. It’s blood, sweat and tears to reach that moment of delivery, underscoring the importance of keeping that truck in good shape.

Regardless of whether you were part of the arduous purchasing process or just on the receiving end of the shiny new apparatus, you and your fellow members are now responsible for maintaining the new purchase and operating at peak performance. Part of that responsibility is ensuring that you comply with the required checks and service intervals required by the apparatus manufacturer, often listed in the operations manual. Keeping up with these checks is not only good for the health of the apparatus, but you will be required to demonstrate that these tasks were completed for the manufacturer to cover issues that fall under warranty. As such, take the time to ensure these items are part of your checklist.

The checklist should be used at the beginning of each shift, covering required daily checks and anything you want to add to ensure that the equipment on board is ready for use. After all, you want to catch potential problems before it’s too late. For example, while SCBA bottle pressures or tank water have little to do with the apparatus warranty, checking these items every shift will pay dividends to ensure a late-night or early-morning call doesn’t leave your crew with a rig that's not ready for action.

Checklists can also highlight less frequently used items to ensure that they are ready to go. Items like AC voltage sticks and other metering equipment should be checked periodically. By adding a reminder for meter calibration and similar tasks into the truck check form, these less frequent checks can be completed when required.

Ensure that your truck checklist follows a logical flow around the apparatus. This can be an opportunity to set your crews up for success by locating complementary equipment in the same compartment where possible. Most departments do this on some level, but you can take it one step further by practicing tool deployments during equipment checks.

If it's possible to cluster that equipment in one place, do it. Grouping will allow your crew to look at all the items they need to do that job while following the checklist.

You can also develop longer-term checklists, like annual maintenance or other mileage- or hours-based intervals. This helps track these items and provides proof that you completed the required inspections in case of an incident or warranty claim.

Keep people sharp

A leveled-up checklist can also turn a daily truck check into a training opportunity.

Instead of just plowing through the list as fast as possible, take the time to think of the checklist as a tool to build safety margin. In simple terms, safety margin is the distance between you and a hazard than can do you harm. We work in an unpredictable, dangerous environment during emergency incidents. Something can go wrong in the blink of an eye, and we can feel our safety margin dwindle to almost nothing, exposing us directly to the hazard. By knowing our apparatus and ensuring our equipment is ready, we can be more resilient and flexible and maintain safety margin.

For example, tank water and SCBA bottle volume can buy us time to move out of a structure and away from harm. A ladder that can be quickly deployed can make it possible to make an emergency rescue of a firefighter or civilian. Instantly knowing a particular piece of equipment can allow for faster responses to unexpected problems. Even something as simple as the location of a spare battery for a meter or thermal imager can mean you have a piece of equipment operating again after minimal downtime.

If you have someone on your crew from another shift or station, use the truck check time and the checklist to ensure that everyone is familiar with that particular apparatus before you are on a call. Your goal should be to get crews to take a specific job or group of tools and look at the truck while filling out the form. Talking about a particular job they may have to do (vertical ventilation, deploying a positive pressure fan, grabbing extrication tools, etc.) accomplishes more than the dreaded pencil-whip.

Capture the check

Now that you have a checklist reflecting your new apparatus (or even the one you’ve had for 10-plus years), plus some training items built into the process, how do you prove that you actually performed the check? Documentation is essential and can be accomplished in many ways.

Paper forms are probably the simplest and easiest to deploy. You can likely start with the manufacturer forms and add to those if provided in an electronic format. Or using a simple printed sheet works as well. Make sure you have a place to store the filled-out forms, so you can retrieve them if needed. Scanning them periodically to a computer can provide some redundancy.

Some companies offer stand-alone apparatus checklist software, and some are web-based, allowing crews to pull the electronic form up on their mobile devices. This type of technology removes the need to store paper forms and can make it easier to search for an individual check record and range or dates. Crews can also generally add comments or pictures to document items, and the system may be able to notify the proper department staff if a piece of equipment needs maintenance or a periodic item is overdue. Your RMS software may also have this capability.

But what if you are ready to move on from paper forms, and your agency has no electronic options on the horizon? You can use many online systems, such as Google Forms or Microsoft Forms, to build a checklist and have it dump the results into a spreadsheet. In addition, you can utilize a QR code to provide a quick and easy way for crews to pull that checklist up on their mobile device and complete it.

Take the time to make it work

If you are the proud owner of a new apparatus or know your truck checklist could do more, take a second to look it over, and make sure it's working as hard as your apparatus and the people who depend on it.

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