Always have a Red File

An inquiry from a colleague recently, regarding processes, checklists, etc., took me back to the first time I heard the words “Red File”

It was 1992, and I had just started in a new career of being a police/EMS dispatcher.

While there were many skills and personal traits I had brought to the new career from my past, overall, there was still much for me to learn before I might take my place in rotation by working shifts alone.

One of the easiest new things to learn/remember was….

The Red File

During a training shift with one of my favorite new co-workers, we were making our way through the last portions of the standard training checklist, and we arrived at the bullet point “Railroads”

And very short list of my duties when things involving a train went horribly wrong.

My mentor said in her quiet, lady like voice…

Don’t try to remember this list. You may never have to do this. Just grab the red file and work down the list if it does happen on your shift.

Suffice to say, I heard the words “Red File” and I was on alert, thinking,

Whoa!! This must be really, really important

Well, yes and no.

Yes, it was important and there were extra things that needed to be done, by me, PDQ*, should an accident happen, or derailment, etc., that weren’t part of my normal duties.

*Pretty Durn Quick

The normal duties I would, sadly, through pure repetition, soon be able to do automatically without having to think about it, just then.

Accidents happen and life seems to get ugly often, when it’s your job to show up and serve others during one or more of the ‘worst day’ of their lives.

Furiously writing notes in my steno pad, to revisit and commit to my memory later, I scrawled out the words and for good effect, placed 3 bold lines under “R.E.D. File”, added some stars to each side, and then asked,

“What does the R.E.D. acronym stand for?”

I tend to remember things better if it’s ‘attached’ to something else in my brain – a story, what portion of the overall process such a thing makes possible, whatever – I need an anchor and connections in order to quickly retrieve the info.

She laughed, reached to the shelf above the radio console, pulled down a red binder, and said,

“Not an acronym this time. We call it that because the binder is red.”

She then ‘educated me’ on what the Red File contained.

Basically, the Red File held the checklists/procedures that were rarely used, but very important to do, if/when the unexpected actually happened.

To this day, there are still times I provide clients with information, processes or short checklists and tell them,

“This needs to be in your Red File.”

Most of them have heard the story and know what I’m saying. Sometimes they ask why, but mostly, I can just say Red File and they get it.

What is a Red File?

A Red file doesn’t have to be red – it can be any color you want and doesn’t have to be a binder either.

What is does need to be is:

  • Easily Accessible and not easily covered up or lost in among other items in the file cabinet, on the shelf or lost beneath other papers on the ‘notice board’
  • Updated as soon as something changes in that particular process
  • Small and well organized and quick to leaf through
  • Separate from your regular daily processes or operational & procedural manuals

What Do you Put into your Red File?

Any process you need to do, that meets more one or more of the following criteria:

  • Only needs done once a year, or once every 5 years…etc.
  • Events that only rarely, if ever, actually occur
  • Processes you rarely, if ever, actually have to do
  • Extremely important in nature
  • Has multiple steps that spells doom for you or others if you don’t get them right, or do them in the correct order.
  • Cascading points of external failures/links of failure, if not done promptly and properly

Work & Personal Red Files

I have 2 Red Files going (and neither are actually red) – One is for Work and one is Personal, and holds my stuff, and the stuff other’s need to get put on duty list for someone else, now that I’m gone.

If I’m working more than one job, I usually end up ‘in charge’ of keeping a whole bunch of red files updated, current, assessed or annually ‘checked’.

Therefore, I dub myself, not only the Queen of Caulking, but also self-appoint me to be Red File authority – 😀

Examples from my Personal Red File

  • Checklist of items to have in GoBag and annual check of contents to have in it should events require evacuation or cowering in the cellar while the house is blown off its’ foundation above us.
  • Legacy options in place for various online accounts I use that provide such options. I check once a year whether I need to or not, update as needed, add new ones to the ‘checklist’ as legacy options become available.
  • Wishes from family members on their medical directives, DNR preferences, obituary, funeral/burial preferences they figure I’ll be in charge of making the decisions/arrangements. My history and personality means, if someone needs support at the ER, ICU or Funeral Home, yup, I’m the one they think of to call…
  • List of assets/household goods for insurance purposes. Updated as needed, checked once a year to ensure current.
  • List of medical directives, DNR wishes, insurance, benefits, etc., I hold, along with my wishes for getting my body properly taken care of if I’m not able to discuss such things. Updated as needed, checked once a year to ensure still true for me.

Does this list make you cringe?

It’s okay if it does.

It makes a lot of my friends & family cringe too.

Clients don’t tend to cringe as much when I tell them about work Red Files and the one I keep for my business that supports them. They like that I’m thinking ahead for them, in case my little one man show is interrupted.

But for many, they would prefer not to have to think about it, wonder about or talk about it.

Some fear even a hint of discussion about such things like death and what might happen if one is not prepared or here anymore, might actually invite disaster in, so why take such a risk?

There are few topics I really am rather a stickler on

Then, there are some topics, I’m a hard-arse on…

“Yes, we need to have this conversation. I’m sorry not pleasant for you, but it needs to happen. Maybe it’s for me, maybe it’s for you, I suspect it’s for both of us.”

The Red File Conversation, here and there, is one that shows up fairly consistently.

Perhaps I’m just ‘projecting’.

Come now – we all know that’s a huge possibility given my history and work experience!

I’ve personally learned the hard way when rare or unexpected events occur that I really don’t want to be trying to ‘think rationally’ and I might not even be able to think at all, just then, if I am emotionally in a state of disbelief, panic, grief, or scrambling to stem the tide of personal impacts rolling over me due to decisions made by others.

And for many in my circle of influence, I suspect they don’t want to be doing that either.

They may not personally know it yet, for perhaps they haven’t had many or any opportunities to say to themselves:

“Self, I really, really I say! I am okay with never riding in [that] rodeo, ever again!

Therefore, I tell them and now I’m telling you, too, should such things befall you at some point:

  • You probably just want a list that you feel fairly confident has been updated recently, can grab quickly and simply start working the checklist – step-by-step.
  • You want a list that doesn’t require you to be with it, focused, well rested, or pain free.
  • Once you have your Red File(s) compiled and get used to updating it, checking in with it once a year – life just becomes easier.

Why is life easier after slogging through that horrible inner landscape?

Well, it is, because now….

You’ve thought about it, assessed, prepared best as you can and now, only once in awhile, do you even have to ‘think’ about it!

  • If the worst DOES happen, you don’t have to be at your best – you grab & go to work.
  • If the worst never happens, okey dokey then.
    • You have, however, spent some time examining your inner landscape of fears, anxieties & doubts…
    • You addressed them, dealt with them and came out on the other side with a sparkly pretty pink binder with butterflies on it (because that’s your style) and now…
  • You are renewed with a sense of inner peace and courage, because you’ve faced the demons within, got them named, exorcised and turned them into something pretty on the shelf, to boot.
  • Perhaps someday, some ‘thing’ you didn’t think about shows up along with stuff you have prepared for – now you only have to spend your ‘frazzled panicked mind trying to work’ on the one you hadn’t prepared for – the rest, you know by rote or have a checklist to follow.

See? Win-Win-Win, overall.

And if you’re not a butterflies/rhinestone personage, that’s okay – a beautiful leather journal that increases in beauty as it ages, works too…..

Red Files for Work may be lighter in nature

A list of examples from many ‘red files’ over the years – mine, help files for clients and various other work places:

  • How to change DNS records to different service providers, on your domain , that you set up for auto-billing and never logged back in – and how to make changes without losing access to your website or email.
    • How to discover where your domain was registered if so long ago, you don’t even remember now, or lost the sticky note you wrote 3 years ago….
  • How to archive your accounting files and carry over your starting balances to the new year, because you are stubborn and refuse to move back to the more pricey accounting option, just for the ease of automatically doing that operation once a year….
  • How to reconnect the current year staff csv file to the form template made to make laminated passes for the year, because you only do this once a year.
  • List of required reports/report compilations that only have to be done annually, or every 5 years and what tools are used to bring them all together from diverse external systems without retyping them by hand, because someone didn’t update their version and you can’t just open the report and push the ‘fetch’ button…
  • Annual archiving of various items to storage/or into digital format and where those files are to be sent for storage or ‘oversight’ committees – with first option that reads: “Distribution list last updated on [date]

But those same work red files, here and there, also hold the very things you hope you never have experience:

  • Disaster Emergency checklist(s)/notifications
  • Fire/Tornado/Blizzard response
  • Active Shooter checklist/scenarios

Red Files & Checklists Aren’t Just for Pilots, Medical or Emergency Response folks

They are for you, your loved ones, your team, your co-workers, your employees/employers, your clients, too.

Don’t be that lead who kept everything in his head and sadly, died from a massive heart attack at work one day, and no one could figure out which project was at what stage, for months.

Just Get ‘er done, update as needed and then, when the annual operations time arrives or the unexpected occurs and you just aren’t at your best right now – well you only have remember one thing:

I need my Red File

Grab it, open to the page/section, and just start working that list, step by step.

*Featured Image for this post courtesy of

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