A Hard Lesson in Documenting Apparatus Checks

As the sun inched lower toward the western horizon on August 15, 2012, the temperature began to recede from a record-breaking high of 104°. On-duty crews at our busiest station were enjoying a hearty firefighter-prepared meal with four civilian guests. After dinner, the firefighters afforded our guests of honor the opportunity to enjoy the view atop our 100’ aerial platform.

As the aerial was being extended toward its maximum reach, the unprecedented occurred; the mechanical system that extends the last section of the ladder failed suddenly, causing the ladder to come sliding down like an out-of-control elevator, freefalling down its shaft. The aerial was at a 45-degree angle when it failed. The engineer of the truck and observing crews quickly sprung into action to assist the injured and stabilize the incident.

In the end, one fire officer and four civilians were injured, some severely. Thankfully, all were wearing their safety harnesses and were tied in to the platform or I’d be sharing a much sadder story.

We learned many lessons that day, but the one I’d like to share with you is the importance of truck check documentation. Our engineers did (and still) do a great job checking and maintaining our fleet. The challenge is to ensure that all this checking and maintaining gets properly documented—all the time, every time.

Outside investigating agencies discovered some gaps in our ladder truck documentation process. These gaps—missing entries, missing days, etc.—can become fodder for lawyers. After all, if it wasn’t documented, it wasn’t done.

Needless to say the chiefs were none too pleased and the company officers (myself included) got an earful. Solutions were discussed, procedures changed, expectations raised, and a renewed commitment to accountability became a mantra.

If it wasn’t documented, it wasn’t done.

As difficult as this whole ordeal was for all of us, we ultimately emerged a better organization. In the fire service, it often takes a tragedy to effect change. It is my most sincere hope you learn vicariously through our ladder truck incident. Take a close look at how well you’re completing the documentation of apparatus checks in your organization. Would your procedures pass muster if NIOSH, law enforcement, or lawyers placed it under a microscope?

Stay safe. Document well.