Reactive maintenance tends to have a bad reputation, with people describing it as running around, putting out fires. But depending on the asset or equipment, it might be the best possible maintenance strategy. And even when it isn’t, having at least some reactive maintenance is an unavoidable fact of life, so it’s important to get good at it. 

And the best way to learn how to “put out fires” is from real firefighters. 

What is reactive maintenance? 

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

A helpful way to understand it is to look at its other common names, breakdown and on-demand maintenance. It’s the maintenance you do when things suddenly go wrong, and you need to fix them right away.  

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, you’re planning and scheduling the work for the maintenance team, while in others you’re 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. A technician might find the rollers on a conveyor belt are slightly out of alignment, so they adjust them on the spot. Or they might find that one of the belts is starting to develop a small worn spot, so they schedule repairs for the next time the line is down between production runs. Either way, it’s corrective maintenance.  

But if you don’t catch an issue early and it has a chance to develop into a bigger problem, those repairs are also corrective maintenance.  

Is reactive maintenance always bad?  

The short answer is “Yes.” Which is why you should take steps to avoid it. Letting things run until they break usually means you can’t effectively plan and prepare. Reprioritizing work on the fly, calling in help over the weekend, and spending extra on rush deliveries increase costs while decreasing team morale.  

But the longer answer is “It depends.” 

Reactive maintenance works well when you have an asset or piece of equipment is: 

  • Low criticality 
  • Hard to maintain 
  • Easy to replace 
  • Cheap to carry in inventory 

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

How can facility managers reduce reactive maintenance?  

Outside of a single narrow category of assets and equipment, you want to reduce your dependance on reactive maintenance.  

There’s more than one way, and it all depends on your assets and equipment. To start, make sure you choose the maintenance strategy that works best for each one. You can also use different combinations on the same asset. It’s the same as maintenance on a car. You use preventive for changing the oil but condition-based for replacing tires.  

What can firefighters teach facility managers about “putting out fires”? 

But there’s no reliable way to eliminate reactive maintenance completely. Remember, in some cases, reactive maintenance makes good sense. And there will always be an element of the unexpected in facility and maintenance management. That’s why most maintenance departments aim for an 80/20 split between planned and unplanned. 

So, it’s important to get good at “putting out fires,” and you can learn a lot from real firefighters. 

So many of the basic principles are the same. 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. 

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.  

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.  

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 all you can about your tools and equipment  

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

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. 

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 facility management solution make maintenance easier?  

If you want to apply the best insights from firefighting to your reactive maintenance program, it pays to implement modern facility and maintenance management 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, technicians 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. 


Reactive maintenance has a bit of a bad reputation, and a lot of it is deserved. It’s the work you 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 ri999ght 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 facility management solution makes it all easier by streamlining how you manage resources and ensures the team has the tools and know-how they need to work effectively, efficiently, and safely. 

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Jonathan writes about asset management, maintenance software, and SaaS solutions in his role as a digital content creator at Eptura. He covers trends across industries, including fleet, manufacturing, healthcare, and hospitality, with a focus on delivering thought leadership with actionable insights. Earlier in his career, he wrote textbooks, edited NPC dialogue for video games, and taught English as a foreign language. He hold a master's degree in journalism.