"Mayday!" Made Simple

Larry Patin and Jonathan Riffe explain why changing the culture of the fire service, individual stations and departments is necessary in "Mayday!" situations.


We read with interest the EMS column, "Maydays Should Not Be 'Mother-May-I' Games," by Gary Ludwig ( Firehouse ®, November 2007) about the chastising of a firefighter who called a Mayday. As the story goes, during the after-incident firehouse critique, the firefighter was hassled for calling a...


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We read with interest the EMS column, "Maydays Should Not Be 'Mother-May-I' Games," by Gary Ludwig (Firehouse®, November 2007) about the chastising of a firefighter who called a Mayday. As the story goes, during the after-incident firehouse critique, the firefighter was hassled for calling a Mayday during a situation the firefighter resolved himself. One can only assume that the company officer was upset that the Mayday response was wasted. There is nothing more chilling than being the incident commander when a Mayday is called. However, as the column states, the outcome of calling the Mayday or whether those responding resources were used is not the issue. Calling the Mayday is the issue.

Why, in this day and age, would calling a Mayday be anything other than an action supported by everyone in the fire service? Dr. Burton Clark of the National Fire Academy, father of the modern Mayday program, points out that is not the case in other disciplines that deal with life and death. According to Clark, a U.S. Air Force pilot is chastised and disciplined for trying to save his $70 million plane (even if he is successful) as opposed to ejecting, based on certain parameters detailed in standard operating procedures (SOPs). The point being, the Air Force expects certain reactions to an anticipated event, regardless of the outcome. Why don't we?

After participating in Mayday training at fire service conferences, the problem became clear. Calling a Mayday is largely misunderstood. The history and culture of the fire service overshadows the value of learning to call a Mayday, and more importantly encouraging that behavior.

According to some the fire service can be traced back to the ancient Rome, where slaves would be positioned around the city to sound an alarm for residents in the event a fire was spotted. Since they were slaves, you can imagine the level and timeliness of the service. After one particularly disastrous fire, the slaves were replaced with free men. The free men were organized like the Roman Army with a chain of command and performed inspections as well as suppression activities. The rest is history.

With such a long history and deeply entrenched tradition, it is no wonder that calling a Mayday is viewed by some as a sign of weakness and even failure. Chief Alan Brunacini once said, "The hardest thing to do is to put a fireman in reverse." Calling a Mayday requires that the firefighter stop, evaluate his or her circumstances, and then call for help. Not help to rescue victims or advance a hoseline, but help to assist because a facemask strap is caught on a nail.

The problem also lies with our basic training. Currently, new firefighters are not taught "Mayday." The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001 standard, Firefighter Professional Qualifications, does not address or teach "Mayday." Even worse, NFPA 1500 writes, "the term Mayday should not be used for fireground communications on that it could cause confusion with the term used for aeronautical and nautical emergencies." Ask any brand-new firefighter in your station if they were given Mayday training. The answer will probably surprise you.

The solution rests in changing the culture of the fire service, individual stations and departments. Culture is defined as the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought typical of a population or community at a given time. Change in culture requires that there be a change in behavior patterns. Changing a behavior pattern is nothing more than repeating the new behavior until it becomes a pattern; we call this training. Since we are fortunate that Maydays are not called regularly, the best way to change is repeated training.

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