What Is Emergency Maintenance (EM)?

January 12, 2022

What Is Emergency Maintenance?

Emergency maintenance, also known as breakdown maintenance, is maintenance required when an asset or piece of equipment suffers an unexpected breakdown or change in condition that results in an immediate threat to health and safety or could cause serious property damage.


Picture this: It’s 3 a.m., and you’re the only emergency maintenance (EM) technician on duty at your hotel.

The phone rings. It’s the lobby concierge calling to inform you that Elevator Three is not working. 

“Is anyone stuck in the elevator?” you ask. 

“Nope, everyone has checked in for the night,” he says. 

You ask the concierge to place an out-of-order sign on the doors of Elevator Three. You create a work order reminder to call a professional in the morning, and you go back to sleep. This is an example of a non-emergency maintenance issue. What does qualify as emergency maintenance? 

EM prevents a threat to the lives, property, profitability, or viability of an organization. For example, in property management, EM protects the health and safety of residents as well as the building’s assets. Emergencies almost always happen without warning. Like reactive maintenance and even run-to-failure maintenance, EM is not scheduled. The purpose of both emergency and reactive maintenance is to locate, define, and correct breakdowns to stop immediate damage and danger. 

Once damage and danger are under control, the goal is to repair (or replace) the equipment. If a repair cannot be made at the time, the area is secured and made safe. Reactive, corrective maintenance is deferred until the maintenance team can perform the work up to company and industry standards. Emergency and reactive maintenance cause downtime and are costly, not to mention potentially dangerous. Furthermore, across industries, breakdowns and downtime can cause employees, stakeholders, and customers to lose confidence.

Types of Emergency Maintenance

Distinguishing between types of emergency maintenance requires separating what is truly an emergency—and needs maintenance immediately—from urgent tasks that can be scheduled at the top of tomorrow’s maintenance list.

The difference between emergency (or reactive) maintenance and planned preventive maintenance is that preventive maintenance decreases the possibility of breakdowns and malfunctions. It does this by keeping equipment in good working order so that processes are more likely to run efficiently and effectively. Without such processes, emergencies are more likely.

Urgent maintenance can wait for normal business hours, saving money on overtime and slapdash repairs.EM issues and repairs occur due to an essential system or piece of equipment malfunctioning or completely failing.

Across industries, emergencies can include:

  • failure of an HVAC system
  • a burst pipe
  • snapped belts and hoses
  • seized engines
  • severe electrical problems
  • equipment breakdowns 
  • gas leaks

These are emergencies because they may impact the safety of employees and customers. 

Difference between Emergency Maintenance and Reactive Maintenance

Another distinguishing factor is how emergencies are brought to light. Emergencies are determined by equipment sensors that indicate, say, leaks and overheating, versus those that are defined by people. For example, in housing situations, tenants often have a hard time distinguishing between emergency and non-emergency maintenance. Natural gas leaks and broken pipes are definitely emergencies to report. 

Sometimes, it may mean the management company simply helps the tenant find the circuit breakers to turn the microwave back on after a power outage or to turn off a water valve. Partial outages, lack of air conditioning or hot water, or a clogged toilet or drain in a hotel guest room are not emergencies. In these situations, a reactive maintenance plan is needed.

The key difference is when it happens and how urgent the needed repairs are. Similar to run-to-failure maintenance, reactive maintenance is exactly what it sounds like. Something unexpected happens with a machine, and you react. There is no preventive maintenance plan in place here either, but it is not considered an emergency. Organizations adopt this plan when repairs are easy or the asset is not critical to smooth operations and/or its failure does not create danger.

Difference between Emergency Maintenance and Preventive Maintenance

As the term suggests, “preventive maintenance” planning can prevent emergencies. So too can condition-based maintenance, predictive maintenance, or prescriptive maintenance plans. Planned and scheduled maintenance strategies proactively identify issues and put in place processes to repair the asset before total failure occurs.   

To make these maintenance strategies effective, your maintenance program should include training to ensure workers understand the difference between urgent and emergency maintenance. Preparing and executing preventive maintenance programs can reduce most emergency maintenance. 

Examples of Emergency Maintenance

In a 6-story office building, the elevator stops working. If the elevator is empty—despite what the building tenants might think about walking up and down stairwells—it is not an emergency. However, if people are stuck in the elevator, it is an emergency. Or if the HVAC system fails in a school building on one of the hottest days of the year, but school is not in session, it’s not an emergency. 

Yes, if you run a fleet management company and the hose on an HVAC system splits open on a truck filled with refrigerated items—that’s an emergency, and emergency roadside service is necessary as soon as possible. Yes, if you run facilities in a high school and there’s a noxious chemical spill in a chemistry lab—that’s an emergency. Or if you run maintenance at a hotel and a pipe bursts in the electrical room, that’s an emergency.

Because emergencies do happen, organizations need EM management plans and teams. The emergency maintenance team is responsible for mitigating any risks and ensuring that property and equipment can get back to working efficiently and effectively.

Emergency Maintenance Plan Requirements 

1. Well-developed functional emergency maintenance plans and teams that move into action when a building or piece of equipment is damaged or breaks down. After mitigating the emergency, the team schedules work on the damaged equipment as necessary, with costs controlled and the experts who know the equipment best.

2. The EM team assesses future risk assessments and the failure’s impact to put a corrective action plan in place.

3. Most important, the EM team makes certain that employees and customers are safe. Safety barriers, shutdowns, and evacuations may be necessary, depending on the severity of the issue.

What often becomes most clear after an emergency maintenance situation is that a preventive maintenance plan is important to prevent future emergencies. Preventive maintenance plans avoid costly downtime, increase company efficiency and effectiveness, and, above all, diminish threats to human health and safety or property damage.


Employees need to handle emergency maintenance requests immediately. The top priority of an emergency management plan—and, yes, you need one even if you have preventive maintenance plans in place—is always to ensure the health and safety of employees, clients, and tenants. 

After the immediate cause of failure has been identified, root cause analysis needs to determine the origin of the failure and how to fix it. Even with a top-notch emergency maintenance program in place, emergency maintenance needs to be reduced. Effective preventive maintenance plans reduce the risk and keep costs under control. 

Implementing preventive maintenance, calendar-based maintenance, runtime-based maintenance, and condition-based maintenance ensures that emergency maintenance, which will happen, occur with less frequency and damage.

Caroline Eisner
Caroline Eisner
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