Fire fighting 101: The basics of service calls

Whether you’re going out in the field to visit one of your company’s customers, or dealing with your own people in your own plant, the same level of forethought and preparation should apply. You want a satisfied customer.


For some of us, one of the most challenging type of work we will perform is a service call. Let’s start by defining a few different types of service calls: scheduled, follow-up, and fire fighting.

The first service call type is a scheduled call where the tasks to complete are well defined. The call has been scheduled and planned well in advance, and you have had time to research the problem thoroughly and prepare for the visit.

The next service call type is a follow-up where the system is familiar to you and maybe you have done some work with it on a previous visit. Although follow-up calls may not be as well thought out and planned in advance as the first, you do have some familiarity with the system and the customer.

The third type of service call, and the one this discussion will focus on, is fire fighting. That’s the one where you get a call in the middle of the night or 4:00 on a Friday afternoon. The problem might be connected with a system you have never seen or have little experience with. The customer has usually been working on it for some time and can’t figure it out before making the call. It’s the situation where you just never know what you’re getting into.

While the fire fighting service call is usually the most stressful and demanding type, using these few basic techniques will improve your effectiveness, and your customer satisfaction.

1. Prepare before leaving the office, whether the customer is in another state or your same building. I can’t tell you how many times I have witnessed (never personally of course) a service call where someone who is supposed to fix the problem forgot that critical cable or bit of software. Make sure you have connectors, cables, software, user manuals, any available backup programs, electrical drawings, necessary test equipment, etc. Print out everything you may need before you go. Access to a printer or internet connections is usually a luxury at the location where you will most likely be working. Most of the time when these calls come in, the priority is to get someone to the site as quickly as possible. Taking the time to stop and prepare will be well worth it once you are onsite. The last thing you want to tell the customer is you need to come back later or tomorrow because you were in a hurry and forgot a basic necessity.

2. What exactly is the problem? In my experience, the description you get at the outset may not reflect the reality of the situation you will be walking into. Like all good stories, the more people that tell it, the more it diverges from reality. Try to get as much information as possible prior to your trip. Talk to the operators as soon as you can since they are valuable resources. Not only do they know the system, they will be your best resource to determine the circumstances surrounding the problem. In some cases they may be reluctant to tell you exactly what happened for fear of blame. I always try to convey the message that it’s in everyone’s best interest to get the problem solved and the equipment running as quickly as possible, so tell me exactly what really happened.

3. Remember to keep it simple. Sometime you hear statements such as, “We have been working on it for two days straight now.” While that may be accurate, it does not always mean the problem is necessarily complicated. It might be very simple. I have been on many calls for blown fuses, faulted processors, loose wires, clearly burnt electronic equipment, etc. The time someone has spent working on the problem is not necessarily directly proportional to the complexity of the problem. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes.

4. The “50% troubleshooting technique.” Once you have a good idea of the problem and have eliminated the simple causes, good troubleshooting skills will help minimize the time it takes to identify the root cause of more complex problems. As a simple example, let’s say you have a good idea your problem is a valve controlled by a PLC that is not working when you turn the output on. Unfortunately, in this system there are nine connections between the PLC and the valve. So where do you start troubleshooting? When I ask this question, about 40% of the people answer, “I always start at the PLC and work to the valve.” Another 40% answer, “I always start at the valve and work backward to the source.” 10% don’t have an answer or any real troubleshooting process, and the other 10% use the same method I do. I always start in the middle of the system when possible. In this case, start by checking if the problem exists at connection five, the middle. If the problem is present, you have identified the problem exists in the last 50% of the system. If the problem is not present, it is in the first 50%. Now repeat again, trying to test at a point close to the middle of the remaining problem area. You have just effectively eliminated 75% of the probable causes in two steps!!

5. Take a break. Sometimes during a service call, there will be lots of pressure on you to “get this thing running again.” In the previous example, the problem was fairly simple and should not take too much time. There are, however, situations where the problems will not be so apparent. Solving the problem will take lots of concentration and critical thinking to determine the cause. It is these times where you can get caught up in the work and never take a step back to refresh your thoughts and validate the troubleshooting path you are on. Taking a break and clearing your head every few hours is an important step to solving the problem. Without it, you could end up saying, “We have been working on it for two days straight now,” only to realize you have been headed in the wrong direction.

6. Last on this list, but the most important aspect is safety. I have been in service call situations where people have been willing to waive certain safety requirements. It may be as simple as the standard site safety video, or as dangerous as bypassing interlocks. No matter the degree of safety or the simplicity of the process, it is NEVER ok to bypass or skip any safety systems or procedures. This is especially true when you have a system that is not performing as expected. It is both your obligation and your right to follow ALL safety requirements at ALL times. This includes times when the system needs to get back running as soon as possible.

I hope these basics tips will make your next fire fighting service call a little easier, a little more productive, and a lot less stressful. Please feel free to comment on your personal fire fighting experiences.

This post was written by William Zupon. Bill is a senior control systems specialist at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading system integrator providing industrial automation, operational support, and control systems engineering services in the manufacturing and process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, and business process optimization. The company provides a full range of automation and controls services – ranging from PID controller tuning and HMI programming to serving as a main automation contractor. Additionally MAVERICK offers industrial and technical staffing services, placing on-site automation, instrumentation and controls engineers.

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