Calling Mayday

When you read line-of-duty death (LODD) reports, it often seems like the odds were stacked against the individuals. A perfect storm of events have come together to create a mountain of insurmountable odds. Rarely does it seem that an LODD can be pinpointed to one single event. Some of these events occurred that day, a unique event, or a minor misstep here or there starts a series of events that result in the loss of a fellow firefighter. Other deaths are a result of events that were years in the making, poor tactical choices, lack of training, or the fact that some firefighters confuse good luck with good solid tactical skills. One of our fellow instructors refers to these events as dominoes. He trains that if you remove one or two of the dominoes, you may break the chain of events that put firefighters in harm’s way. Proper training removes one of the dominoes. Knowing your role and working within the incident command system is another set of dominoes that can be removed. Everyone listening to the radio and reporting any changing conditions to the incident commander (IC) can prevent a firefighter from becoming trapped.

Regardless of the circumstances that create this chain of events, we need the entire team to bring the firefighter home. The time for the team to practice is now, before game day. There are countless articles about self-survival and rapid intervention team (RIT) tactics, but the fact is the entire fireground must support Mayday operations to maximize the survival of our fellow firefighters in need.

Firefighter in the Mayday Situation

The lost or trapped firefighter needs to be proficient in self-survival skills. Your actions and proficiency in the most basic skills can be the difference between your life and death. We all know we should do our best to not get into a Mayday situation, but sometimes it occurs anyway. That is why it is important for firefighters to drill on the steps they should take in a given situation to increase their survival odds.

Assigned Teams

Firefighters on scene must maintain discipline, but this can prove difficult. We are there to protect lives in the most dangerous of times, especially the lives of our fellow firefighters. Teams assigned to a task on the fireground must continue the assigned task unless their personal safety is compromised or the team has been reassigned by the IC. While engaged in operations, crews must keep alert to signs and sounds of the firefighter in distress. If crews have information on the whereabouts of the Mayday firefighter, they must notify command. Maintaining crew integrity and situational awareness is the best way to bring a fellow firefighter home. Freelancing occasionally makes heroes but compromises the safety of all members on the scene.

Apparatus Operators

The apparatus operator is one of the most overlooked positions when it comes to training. Training often focuses on driving and operating, but there is a whole level of incident support that apparatus operators can offer to help interior operations. Operators of attack pumpers must make sure that all lines deployed from their apparatus are charged. There have been several incidents where interior crews mistake what apparatus they have advanced lines off of, and crews are interior in rapidly deteriorating conditions, calling for water, only to be calling the wrong unit. Attack pumper operators must also ensure their pump is operating correctly, look for signs that there may have been a line failure, and ensure there has not been a failure in the water supply.

Apparatus operators whose apparatus are not assigned to pump have to work under the guidance of the command staff for a proper direction and task. Operations may include assigning apparatus operators as a second RIT. Apparatus operators can be used as logistical support of fireground operations, placing ground ladders to upper floors, supplementing RIT supplies, establishing additional water sources, or any other task needing to be performed on the exterior of the incident. They may be used as a command aide, listening to the radio, performing incident accountability, or serving as the staging officer for the next incoming alarm. Regardless of the operations, we must make sure that apparatus operators are working within the incident command system and that the IC maintains accountability. Company officers often blindly account for their apparatus operators assuming that they have remained safely at the pump panel. Assembly of several pump operators into a hybrid crew can unintentionally result in individuals missing from the accountability roll call.

Incident Commander

For the IC, your ultimate responsibility is to get all your firefighters home safely. This incident has escalated to your worst nightmare as an IC. You need to have sound decision making skills based on the situation. Sound decision making will be the result of thorough training, drilling, and self-challenging of “What Would I Do If …?” ICs cannot assume a Mayday will not happen to them. If you run enough incidents, even the best ICs may find themselves commanding a Mayday. The IC must establish incident priorities, establish communications, activate the RIT, announce the Mayday, maintain fire control, evaluate current strategy and tactics, and make adjustments as necessary.

The IC must account for all personnel on the scene. Something has gone wrong, and it is easy to get focused on the individual calling for help and lose track of other firefighters unable to call for assistance. In 2007, the Charleston (SC) Fire Department was not using an accountability system when the Sofa Super Store fire occurred and, tragically, the command staff did not have an accurate number of how many firefighters were unaccounted for. Ultimately, nine firefighters lost their lives that day and the department has forever changed.

The IC must be prepared for additional Maydays. Often, we train on a single Mayday event, but what happens when additional Maydays are called? The Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department taught us that, after the supermarket fire that claimed Brett Tarver, the day your organization runs its first Mayday it may run its second, third, and fourth.

RIT operations are the ultimate high-risk/high-reward incident. Often something has gone catastrophically wrong and the structure is compromised, creating a high-risk incident, but we have a duty to bring our fellow firefighters home. At some point in the incident, the IC must make the ultimate risk/benefit decision and suspend all rescue operations to save firefighter lives. The decision to suspend RIT operations will be a difficult one and very unpopular with the troops.

In December 1999, in Worchester, Massachusetts, we heard how the IC stood in the doorway preventing firefighters from entering the Cold Storage Warehouse to look for six firefighters. The decision to suspend RIT operations and stand in the doorway most likely saved many more lives that tragic night.

Medic Units

The ambulance should be positioned for rapid transport. Additional emergency medical service (EMS) units and a medical supervisor should be requested. The goal should be to have one ambulance available for every Mayday firefighter, in addition to at least one ambulance to serve as a rehab unit. A Mayday is a high-risk activity; pulse rates are elevated. The chances are that additional firefighters on the scene may need medical care.


Dispatchers are often forgotten about as a vital link in the support of a Mayday operation. Dispatchers are an extra set of ears that may hear and alert the IC to the Mayday situation. Agencies must have a Mayday protocol with their dispatch agencies. Dispatchers must train on the procedure. Once the IC declares the Mayday, the dispatcher can begin to get the IC the additional resources needed without the IC having to request them.

A solid protocol should include dispatching the next greater alarm, identifying a potential staging area, notifying additional command staff, notifying the public information officer, reminding about the need to conduct accountability, assigning additional tactical channels, dispatching EMS units, and placing air ambulances on standby. Fire service agencies should endeavor to include dispatch agencies in training drills.

Radio Discipline

All companies must exercise radio disciple. Additional Maydays and lifesaving details may be transmitted, and the IC has enough on his plate without useless babble from companies. Listen to any fireground traffic from any size organization, career or volunteer, East Coast, West Coast, or Midwest, and you will hear useless fireground traffic. It seems that traffic increases when a Mayday is called. Crews must be prepared to change radio frequencies and to give a personal accountability report.

Bring the Team Home

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday: A radio transmission none of us want to hear on the fireground. It is going to take the entire fireground to support the RIT operations to bring the firefighter to safety. Everyone must know their role and be engaged. The Mayday call will substantially increase the work load and incident priorities of the command staff. Firefighters on the fireground must know their role in the incident and maintain discipline.

As firefighters, we often train for a citizen’s worst day. Don’t forget our worst days. More importantly, do not forget the firefighters who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and the companies on those scenes. We owe it to them and their families to prevent history from repeating itself.

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