Mayday Communications

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.

While Mayday communications can be complex, the responsibility of communications can be summed up by the word "VALIDATE":

V Verify

A Acknowledge

L Listen

I Inform

D Divert

A Account

T Terminate

E Evaluate

V - Verify that a Mayday has been transmitted and confirm the unit number or personnel identification and location. Keep in mind that a Mayday may be transmitted in a number of ways; by voice over radio by those directly involved, by emergency button over radio, or by other firefighters who witness an incident, hear a personal alert safety system (PASS) emergency alarm or call for help, or who otherwise have knowledge that trouble exists.

Attempt to obtain the most accurate location possible. Make direct contact with the originator of the Mayday, if you can. For other than voice reports, confirm that the emergency device activation was not accidental. In all cases, assume that the Mayday is genuine until you have been otherwise advised by the originator. Get as much information as you can concerning their current conditions. How many firefighters are involved? Who are they? Are they trapped? Lost? Injured? Out of air? All of this may be helpful to the rapid intervention team.

A - Acknowledge and announce the Mayday information on all appropriate channels. Make sure that everyone who needs to know is advised and that they confirm receipt of the correct information.

L - Listen for additional calls for help or pertinent transmissions. If initial contact cannot be established, then continue to check at regular intervals. Query the firefighters calling the Mayday to answer by microphone click if they cannot speak, and to activate their PASS devices and/or flashlights if they can do so. Your role is to help other units find the downed firefighters as quickly as possible.

I - Inform all agencies and personnel required to respond. Make the notifications specified under policy. Make sure that you know ahead of time what will be expected. Typically, additional companies and emergency medical resources will be called to the scene and chief officers and municipal officials briefed. Where an agency has but one frequency on which to both signal and communicate, as many emergency notifications as possible should be made by alternate means. While there is no singular recommendation that fits every scenario, it must be remembered that any traffic on this sole channel will compete and potentially interfere with communications to and from the downed firefighters.

D - Divert all non-essential radio traffic to other channels, if available. Keep the air clear for those directly involved in the emergency. While the wholesale switching of an entire in-progress operation is always difficult and seldom recommended since someone may get "lost in the shuffle," this is one time when this should be considered. The channel on which the Mayday was transmitted should be kept clear for communicating with those in need. Where other departments or incidents are also sharing this channel, efforts should be made to relocate these conversations elsewhere, as well.

A - Account for all companies/teams involved in the incident. It is imperative to keep track of assigned resources. Some assignments may change in response to the Mayday. Make sure you stay abreast of these changes and know where everyone is. Be prepared to help rescue the rescuers in case a second Mayday is called. Although it should be strongly discouraged, some individuals may freelance and some companies may self-dispatch when they hear that a firefighter may be down. If alerted to these situations, advise the IC immediately so that control and accountability can be re-established.

T - Terminate the Mayday when advised to do so. Know who has the authority to call for a cancellation, and once again make sure that everyone gets the message to pull back. Rapid intervention teams may need to be withdrawn quickly once a rescue has been carried out. Tactics on the fireground may change, and crews should not be exposed to any unusual danger for longer than actually required.

E - Evaluate the process as soon as possible after completion. What worked? What didn't? What should be done differently next time? Regardless of the outcome, an honest assessment of performance will be of great value in improving policies and procedures. Confine your analysis to the communication process and not the rescue. It is possible to successfully extract a firefighter even if communications were flawed. However, luck may not be on your side the next time. If a serious injury or fatality occurs, consider including a critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) for the communications staff as part of this process.

While the use of any acronym like the word VALIDATE out of necessity places the words from which it is derived in a prescribed order, it should be realized that there will be an overlap in some of these activities during real-world events. In fact, the listening component listed in the above should never stop. However, by using the word VALIDATE to easily remember the key activities involved, agencies increase their chances of carrying out all of these important functions when required.

The role of communications; especially that of the communications center and the dispatcher, should not be overlooked when planning for the Mayday. Chief Goldfeder underscores this importance with these comments: "Fire dispatchers - those truly trained in that role - are the IC's 'aide' and can help make or break an incident. In the case of a Mayday, the fire dispatcher - who is off site - can provide resources to the IC that can clearly contribute to the saving of the trapped firefighters."

It is imperative that every fire department recognize that role and engage in planning that prepares these individuals for their most important performance. While we may hope for the best, we should always plan for the worst.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.