Reactive maintenance tends to have a bad reputation, with people describing it as “running around, putting out fires.” But because it’s unavoidable, you need to be good at it. 

And important lessons from actual firefighting can show us how.

What is reactive maintenance? 

The fastest way to understand it is to look at its other common names, breakdown and on-demand maintenance. You can also refer to it as “running around putting out fires.” None of those sound great. 

Reactive maintenance is the work that you do when assets or equipment unexpectedly fail. An asset goes offline, and you have to rush to get it back up and running. 

What is the difference between reactive and corrective maintenance? 

Corrective maintenance has a broader scope. It’s the work you do to get an asset or equipment back in working order. In some cases, it’s planned while in others it’s not. 

If you catch an issue during a preventive maintenance inspection or task, fixing it is corrective maintenance. In some cases, you do the work right away. In others, you schedule it for later. But it’s corrective either way. 

If you don’t catch an issue and it has a chance to develop into a bigger problem, making those repairs is also corrective maintenance. 

Is reactive maintenance always bad? 

Generally, yes. It’s bad and you should take specific steps to avoid it. Letting things run until they break means you never know what you have to do or when you have to do it. And that means you have more trouble scheduling work and keeping the right parts in stock. You’re always doing repairs with the rest of the organization looking over your shoulder and breathing down your neck. No one wants to work on an asset surrounded by idle operators and unhappy managers. 

But reactive maintenance is not always bad. It depends on the asset and equipment. 

If you have an asset or piece of equipment that has a low criticality, is hard to maintain but easily fixed or replaced, and the parts are cheap to carry in inventory, reactive maintenance might be your best maintenance strategy. 

The classic example is light bulbs. When one burns out, work on the line doesn’t stop. You can’t really do preventive maintenance on them but you can quickly replace them. And because they’re usually cheap and last a long time on the shelf, you don’t have to worry about carrying costs. 

How can we reduce reactive maintenance? 

So, in some cases, it’s the best choice. But outside of that narrow category of assets and equipment, you want to reduce your dependance on reactive maintenance. 

There’s more than one way to reach this goal, and it all depends on your assets and equipment. You can choose the maintenance strategy that works best for each one. You can also use different combinations. It’s the same with your car, where you use preventive maintenance for deciding when to change the oil but on-demand maintenance for knowing when to add window-washer fluid. 

But can we reduce it all the way to zero? 

No. That’s just not possible. 

One reason is that for some assets and equipment, it makes more sense to take care of them with reactive maintenance. Remember your light bulbs. 

But for all your other assets and equipment, the ones where you don’t want to use reactive maintenance, you still sometimes have to. And it doesn’t matter which maintenance strategy you use, preventive, condition-based, or predictive. You could be following industry best practices and have a finely tuned combination of all these strategies and still have to deal with reactive maintenance. As a rule of thumb, you should be shooting for an 80/20 split, with reactive making up about 20% of your overall maintenance activities. 

So, your best option is to avoid it as much as you can but also prepare for it as best as you can. 

Which lands us at our firefighting analogy. Being good at reactive maintenance shares a lot with being good at fighting fires. 

First, it’s a lot easier to prevent them than fight them, which is why we pour a lot of resources into prevention. Everything from smoke detectors to Smokey the Bear campaigns that teach people the importance of forest fire safety. 

Second, because you know prevention is never perfect, you need to be prepared to fight. 

Then, how can we get good at reactive maintenance? 

One way is to look at how firefighters work and borrow their battle-proven methods. 


Nick, on the right, with fellow firefighters

Nicholas Bradshaw is our Customer Marketing Manager, and back in 2012, he was a firefighter in the Midwest. We asked him for his insights into how best to battle blazes. 

Establish defined roles and a clear chain of command 

One of the most important steps to getting organized should also be the most obvious: you need a well-defined organization with some built-in redundancies. Everyone gets a job and knows their responsibilities. Ideally, everyone also knows a bit about everyone else’s job, so they can step into different roles in a pinch. 

Nick explains, “I was a sawyer, so my job was to run the saw, focusing on cutting down large trees — anything that was going to be dangerous to the crew. We also had squad leaders and even back-up leaders. There was always a clear chain of command.” 

It’s the same with reactive maintenance. You need to know who’s in charge of calling the shots, who is set to do the work, and if things go sideways, who comes in for extra support. 

Stock up on the parts and materials you most likely need 

A huge part of being prepared is having the right tools ready to go. 

“My counterpart, also a sawyer, carried the fuel, an axe, and an entire spare kit of parts on our saw,” Nick says. 

Because you already know your assets and have a pretty good idea of what can and often does go wrong, you can have all the MRO parts and materials on hand for when you need them. Firefighters don’t show up without their shovels. Techs need to arrive onsite with the right toolbox. 

Know your tools and equipment well 

But having the right tools is not enough. You also need to know how to use them. 

“We could disassemble and swap out any part on our saw and have it back up running in minutes, blindfolded.” 

There are different ways to make this happen. One is by ensuring you have experienced techs who know their jobs. But another important part of the puzzle is finding ways to make data about your assets and equipment easily accessible. If someone of working on an asset for the first time, they need reliable data to help them along. 

Set up steps for after all the action so you’re quickly back to being ready 

Even after the smoke has cleared, there’s still work to do, explains Nick. 

“After we got off a deployment, we did a thorough analysis of our gear, cleaned, swapped out parts, did an entire inspection on every piece of equipment that we used or didn’t use.” 

For reactive maintenance, you should include a couple of steps after the asset or equipment is back up and running. 

First, you can focus on your tools and MRO inventory, making sure everything is still working and your stocks are set to be replenished. Second, as part of a larger FRACAS program, you can set up ways to confirm you used the right fixes and that they’re likely to last. 

How does a CMMS make putting out maintenance fires easier? 

If you want to apply the best insights from firefighting to your reactive maintenance program, it pays to implement modern CMMS software. 


Old fashioned paper- and spreadsheet-based methods might have been fine in the past, but now they’re not good enough. Think of it this way: today’s firefighters don’t use horse-drawn pumps and buckets. 

Modern maintenance management solutions help you create a clear organization with assigned roles for everyone. The maintenance lead can control every step of task management, reviewing requests and then generating, prioritizing, assigning, and tracking work orders. And because the information is accessible through any Internet-connected device, techs know right away where you need them. 

And when they get there, they have everything they need to work fast and efficiently, including: 

  • Detailed asset maintenance and repair histories 
  • Step-by-step instructions 
  • Customizable checklists 
  • Digital schematics, images, and OEM manuals 
  • Associated parts and materials 

And because you can track your inventory using the software, you can ensure those associated parts and materials are there for them. You set customizable par levels for each item, and when you dip below, the software automatically sends you a warning and helps automate some of the steps for ordering more from vendors. 

Next steps 

Ready to get better at putting out fires? 

Hippo’s here to help you get the solution that works best for you, including answering your questions about maintenance management software, helping you book a live software demo, or even setting you up with a free trial.


Reactive maintenance has a bad reputation, and a lot of it is deserved. It’s the work you have to do when assets and equipment fail without warning. Although you can take steps to prevent it, you can’t avoid it completely, which is why it makes sense to invest in the maintenance department’s reactive skillset. Because firefighters are experts and “running around putting out fires,” you can apply their insights to fighting reactive maintenance, including having defined roles and responsibilities, always bringing the right tools and knowing how to use them, and setting up an after-action process to ensure you’re ready for the next flareup. A good CMMS makes it all easier by streamlining how you manage resources and ensure the team has the tools and know-how they need.  

About The Author

Jonathan Davis

Jonathan has been covering asset management, maintenance software, and SaaS solutions since joining Hippo CMMS. Prior to that, he wrote for textbooks and video games.
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