A Checklist for Safety


By Michael Petroff
Battalion chief/training officer (ret.)

Checklists provide a systematic approach to actions necessary to complete a task — and the fire service has long used them for daily equipment readiness and service.

The need for incident documentation lends itself to the use of checklists to record action taken. But some fire officers voice the opinion that command checklists diminish the intelligence level of the officer and that training and experience outweigh the need for checklists. However, both normal and abnormal situations call for the use of checklists to ensure consistency and to assist less experienced personnel.

The safety and loss control efforts of the fire service are similar to those of service, transportation and manufacturing occupations. Studies of accidents or near misses show similar "acts or omissions" across all of these industries. Situational awareness and lack of training/ experience lead the list of contributing factors. Checklists could be considered a risk management tool. Three recent events brought these issues to my attention. Two of the events were aircraft incidents, one successfully concluded, and one fatal.

Pilot experience, training and situational awareness were cited as potential causes of the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in February in Buffalo, New York. The pilot and copilot were heard on cockpit voice recorders sharing their fear of flying in icy conditions and remarked on how much ice was on the wings. Fifty lives were lost at this incident. The instructions contained in the aircraft flight manual and checklists will thoroughly be reviewed as part of investigations.

The "Miracle on the Hudson" involving U.S. Airways Flight 1549 the previous month resulted in no loss of life. The training and experience of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger was a significant, if not the single most important factor that resulted in the good outcome.

During a television interview, Captain Sullenberger stated that after hitting the water, he and the copilot expressed their surprise that the landing was not as violent as expected and immediately went to the evacuation checklist.

In aviation, the steps called for an emergency checklist are far too important to be left to memory. Only "Immediate Action Procedures," usually only three to four steps, are "memory items." The steps that follow require the use of checklists.

Fans of the TV show, "ER," will know of the importance of checklists. Near the end of its run, Dr. John Carter was about to undergo kidney transplant surgery. The overanxious, almost arrogant, surgeon in charge was about to proceed when Dr. Peter Benton stepped in, and insisted on the use of a pre-surgery checklist. The use of the checklist revealed a critical "omission" that was discovered before surgery. That omission would have had fatal results.

Meanwhile, back to our world, and David Dodson lists the benefits of fire service checklists in Fire Department Incident Safety Officer 2nd edition (Cengage Delmar).

1. A reminder of things that need to be done

2. Keep you on track in a "distracting" environment

3. Lend themselves to uniformity when transfer of "command"

4. Archiving (documentation) simplified

5. Format easy to use and easy to modify when needed.

Dodson also lists limitations of checklists including:

1. Over simplification

2. Failure to revisit items once "checked"

3. Limitations of checklists specific to incidents( a separate checklist for hazmat or confined space

4. Checklists imply an order or importance, when completion of the tasks may need to be prioritized.

Checklists are a valuable tool for individuals assigned to unfamiliar positions or situations. Checklists provide a discipline to the task being performed for a seasoned officer. No matter the familiarity of the situation, checklists should serve as a reminder of the importance of the task and lead to a safe outcome.


Michael Petroff is a retired battalion chief from the Ferguson Fire Department of St. Louis County, Missouri. BC Petroff served for more than 32 years, progressing through the ranks. He served on the St. Louis County Overhead response team, and is an instructor for national, state and local fire agencies. BC Petroff has served as western region director for the Fire Department Safety Officers Association, and is a member of the National Fire Protection Association 1021 Committee, a member of the Thomson Delmar Fire Advisory Board, and serves as the region VII regional advocate for the Everyone Goes Home Life Safety Initiatives Program.

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