What Should My Fly System Inspection Tell Me?

By Roger; Image by Rob
Published April 2021

This article is part of a series where we pause to consider inspections of all sorts as they appear in the theater and entertainment world. Sometimes inspections are downplayed as interruptions of our work or as costly bureaucratic exercises without benefit to today’s work. Sometimes they are feared as an unwelcome cost with greater expense once flaws are discovered. And sometimes inspections are a welcome review that helps us avoid damage or catastrophe.

As we think through the concept of inspections, we’ll discuss both short and long term uses, how professionals, administrators, and practitioners benefit from their use, and the real reasons we want inspections. We’ll discuss a spectrum surrounding inspections, digging into each aspect so we can all understand that inspections are a tool toward improvement, increased safety, and preserving our gear for the best future. In short, we’ll begin to understand that inspections are good news and to be welcomed.

You may have heard your fly system should be inspected annually.  If your organization is like many, a random person appears one day to look at your flys. Later, someone in the office gets a report that gets shoved in a folder, in a cabinet, in some office, so you can get back to work. But, really – Why should your fly system have an inspection or you care to read the report?  What should this report tell you, the user?

Two things up front: First, the inspection is not a repair session. You should not expect the inspector to make fixes on your gear. In most cases, doing so is a very bad practice as such work can invalidate a warranty.

Second, at this time, our industry has no officially recognized standards for inspections or reporting, what information should appear, or what format ought to be used. This means each inspector will tend to develop their own form or adopt a form they see and like, especially considering that theaters have widely varying systems and equipment. Moreover, each inspector will notice different details and focus on aspects in their own way, which will lead to different formats or organizational schemes. Still, at a minimum, the report should have 2 sections: Inspection Notes and Recommendations. Your inspector may include others such as General Observations or Photographs, but these two are a minimum. 

The Inspection Notes should be highly detailed, presented in a logical order, and thorough. This section will be the bulk of the report because it should mention the condition of each and every component. As you read them, you should be able to visualize what the inspector saw. Here is one sample of fly system inspection notes taken from a real world inspection:

Inspection Notes

Note that this is organized by line set and then by component. As you read, you should encounter every component in a logical order. In this example, the first six notes focus on the arbor, the next notes examine the lift lines and sheaves, then focus on the batten and batten mounted gear, wrapping up with a note about how the set runs, or Action. Notes for each line set or device are organized the same – components are covered in the same order – and use similar terms like “acceptable” or “this is best practice.” You should like this aspect, because it suggests the inspector examined each component.

For your ease of use, issues should stand out with some notation method and be easily found. In this case, issues observed appear in red text so that your eye is drawn to the issues at a glance. Following each issue, there should be a recommendation for one way to deal with that issue. 

The Recommendations section should be a concise list of issues the inspector finds summarized in one place. Rather than simply listing the issues again in line set order, the issues should group by issue and divide into three categories by importance: critical, important, and not related to safety.

 Here is a Recommendations page from an inspection that I performed:

Chart of Critical Issues

Critical Issues violate a code, are damaging components, or in some other way signal impending failure. Highlighting issues clearly and boldly draws your attention to them. Certain of these need to be fixed as soon as possible while other issues allow for gear to be locked out until repair is made. Above, on lines 2 and 4, these must be fixed immediately or a failure can occur, Line 8 is still important but the user can mitigate the issue and is less urgent. The difference depends entirely on what is found. You should think of this category as your mechanic saying, “your brake pads are worn through and have got to be replaced.” 

Important Issues signal the need for user training, a change in how equipment is used, or completing deferred maintenance. Their presence is not immediately a risk of injury or failure and some users choose not to address them even though each Important Issue is a signal that something is wrong. Choosing to wait but keep an eye on them is a standard reaction. At very least, the inspection should call your attention to them for future reference.

Issues Not Related to Safety are minor details or slight deviations from acceptable practice but none present a danger or make the system riskier to use. In effect, the inspector is saying, “Interesting. That’s not best practice but it’s also not wrong.” You should look at these and decide if they are important, given how you use your system. Example: a sticky arbor might be unimportant if you rarely use that fly line or it might be super important on a fly line you use every show.

If you think of the Recommendations as a To Do list, you will be able to focus on those issues most in need of action and can decide on your own priority as budgets allow. Further, you can compare inspections to see if issues are being resolved or if new issues are cropping up. Certain observations suggest the need for user training.

Now, the above sections are essential to your understanding of how your system is working, and you should expect to see them. You might also see a page called General Observations (GenOb’s), a powerful tool for you. This section is a list of broad statements reflecting the inspector’s impressions of the system and facility as a whole and each includes a recommendation. This is a chance to address overarching topics that don’t fit nicely into other categories of the inspection. Here is a short sample:

Chart of General Observations

Statements can be numbered for reference in other sections (a handy organizational tool). Some notes will be positive such as GenOb 1 – “This is a best practice” is an excellent note to get. Cherish these since it means you’re doing it right.

Consider GenOb #2. In this statement, here you are told that parameters did not allow loft blocks to be inspected. Clearly stating this tells all the parties an important component was not examined in this inspection and recommending a future remedy. When the next inspection comes around, your memory can be prompted that this time we might need a lift.

Now look at GenOb #4 – for reasons unknown, the index light was not installed. You now ask why this happened: was it a change order (legit) or sloppy installation (warranty item). Blame is not assigned, merely the observation that this is unusual, which empowers you and your supervisors to discuss a path forward. 

Note: a General Observation can be overridden by specific observations. GenOb #3 (noise) is not invalidated by one quiet line set. Exceptions to the general case do not invalidate broader concerns and they are not contradictions.

At the end of your inspection, plan for a debrief – time for the inspector to guide the user and/or the owner through the inspection observations, point by point, so there is no confusion later about terms or the meaning of a statement. This is your chance to ask how urgent a repair is, what can be done in-house versus by a professional contractor, and to gain clarity on some terms you may not know. Example: the report can say ‘arbor weight tabs are not offset’ and this is a straightforward statement once you know that weights have tabs, those tabs should alternate, and that this is a safety issue.

Your annual inspection is a chance for an outside eye to look at your gear. A new perspective may see details you are used to or discount in your daily use. For example, water stains on a curtain may indicate a roof leak. An inspection noting those stains might get the roof repaired. Any note indicating premature wear or damage is a reason to discuss a repair before it gets bad. The Finance Office may not understand ‘system is noisy’ but they sure understand ‘equipment is being damaged’ or ‘in 3 years we’ll need to take it out of service due to wear’ and they surely understand ‘people will be hurt’. A major point of an inspection is a chance for you to open discussions of maintenance funding with the people who assign budgets. 

This is the reason an inspection should point out all the flaws from the smallest to the largest. Every system has flaws and their presence is not a judgement or accusation. Having an outside voice say “this is less than good” and “that is double bad” is a powerful opportunity to open discussions. Moreover, inspections are a tool for you to keep your systems safe and in good order and to monitor change in your system as time passes. Comparing inspections across time is a fantastic exercise.

This is also the reason a copy of the report notes should be available to the user. Having notes readily at hand allows them to quickly observe how the system is changing by keeping notes and comparing them year to year and show to show. Of course the Fly Log Book is the best home for such notes, and keeping an up to date fly log will help you notice changes across time.

One last thought: the inspection is an advisory document – a professional opinion – with no enforcement power of its own. It is an important part of the documentation you need to maintain in case there is an unfortunate future issue – accident or damage. In that sad instance, you can show that you have done your maintenance or can present reasons you have not. An inspection issue that keeps coming up is a sign that something needs to change, whether that’s operator training or specific maintenance. The annual inspection report is your tool to help you assure your theater can have a safe, fully functional fly system with a long life.

Happy Days and Rig Safe!  

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