Mayday Communications

Barry Furey focuses on the communications aspects of managing "Mayday!" emergencies.


Perhaps there is no more dreaded radio transmission than that of a firefighter Mayday. After all, this is official confirmation that one of our own is in trouble. While much has been written and analyzed concerning the steps to be taken on the fireground when a Mayday is declared, this article...


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Perhaps there is no more dreaded radio transmission than that of a firefighter Mayday. After all, this is official confirmation that one of our own is in trouble. While much has been written and analyzed concerning the steps to be taken on the fireground when a Mayday is declared, this article will focus solely on the communications aspects of managing these emergencies. Dependent upon department protocols, duties discussed here may be assigned directly to, or shared between, the incident commander (IC), safety/accountability officer, rapid intervention team and dispatch center. Regardless of who is responsible, it is imperative that these duties be carried out, and that there is a clear and prior understanding of where this responsibility rests.

Knowing what to do, as well as confirming who is going to do what, is just another way of saying that planning is needed. And what could be more important than planning the proper way to handle a Mayday call? Chief William Goldfeder, a Firehouse® contributing editor who writes the Close Calls column, addressed this issue as follows: "When a firefighter calls a Mayday, it may be their first and only chance to transmit that message. Unfortunately, in some fire communication systems, the dispatcher is not able to monitor the fireground channel...and that can be a very weak link in a system of rescuing firefighters. If your dispatcher doesn't monitor the fireground channels...and there is a Mayday...who is listening? Is it someone on the fire scene assigned to do nothing but monitor the channels? Odds are that role and position doesn't exist on most working fire scenes. Whereas a professional fire dispatcher, assigned to monitor the fireground channel by policy, has one role: to monitor and respond to that fireground channel."

However, in today's world, it should not automatically be assumed that a dispatcher is assigned to monitor your channel. And, even if he or she is, they likely have other duties (see "Expanding Expectations - Retreating Resources," Firehouse®, April 2007). Since radios sometimes work in strange ways, transmissions that are heard at the scene may not be readable at dispatch, and vice-versa. When we talk about stretching a second line and "two-in/two-out" rules, perhaps we should also add the need to have two divergent individuals responsible for monitoring emergency traffic. With regard to this function, Chief Goldfeder went on to ask, "How does it work in your department?" Without a doubt, this is the first question that needs to be answered.

While important, this is certainly not the only component of the plan. The success or failure of a Mayday operation is largely based upon the use of proper radio procedures on a daily basis. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Adherence to National Incident Management System (NIMS) nomenclature protocols to avoid confusion.
  • Use of full unit identifiers in all cases on all calls; even during single-company or single-department events.
  • Use of proper phonetics and message structure.
  • Making sure that all messages - even those that are seemingly mundane - are acknowledged properly.
  • Avoidance of accepting microphone clicks as acknowledgements.
  • Utilizing proper channel assignments.
  • Minimizing the number of transmissions made and proper circuit discipline, and
  • Ensuring that all personnel have a clear understanding of the situations under which a Mayday may be declared and cleared.

It is all these "little things" and more that define the difference between success and failure. After all, many tragedies come from, as a popular book and movie would put it, "a series of unfortunate events" that compound each other, rather than a single miscue. If your normal communications discipline is sloppy and disorganized, it is certainly not going to improve during the heightened emotions of a Mayday. Rather, you can expect these existing flaws to be magnified and to have a seriously negative impact upon your rescue operation. Drill on Mayday procedures. Include communications in this training. And, most certainly involve your dispatchers, because your life truly does depend on them.

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