Mayday-Mayday-Mayday: What Radio Channel Are You On?

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Knowledge of Radio Protocol Saves Firefighter in House Full of Surprises

In this close call, we again read how a "nothing showing" on arrival fire call became anything but nothing. However, while the writer shares with you his personal experience, we also take a look at an issue that is becoming more and more of a concern to firefighters: the use of their radios. Years ago, radios were simpler to use and operate, but with digital-trunked and multi-system, talk-group and channel radios, the use of a firefighter radio - like it or not - has become an issue worth thinking about.

Prince George's County, MD, is a diverse and multicultural community bordering the eastern edges of our nation's capital. The Prince George's County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department responded to over 122,600 calls for service last year using a combination career and volunteer fire and EMS service delivery model.

Our sincere thanks to Firefighter Mike Wells for sharing his first-hand close call so that other firefighters can learn. Thanks also to Chief Lawrence H. Sedgwick Jr. of the Prince George's County Fire-EMS Department, Prince George's County Fire-EMS Public Information Officer Mark Brady, the Fire Investigation Bureau of the Prince George's County Fire-EMS Department, the career firefighters from Station 839, the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department (Prince George's County Fire/EMS Stations 819, 839 and 842) and all other firefighters and companies involved in this incident.

This account is by Firefighter Mike Wells, who called the Mayday:

March 24, 2008, did not start out like most shifts at Prince George's County Fire/EMS Station 839 in Bowie, MD. The lieutenant, fire-technician and senior firefighter were all out on leave. I was the only member of my regular shift working that day. Just four months off probationary status, I had no clue that I was going to be tested on what I had learned one year earlier in the academy. I started apparatus checks, changed the battery in my personal radio and made sure that my self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) was in working order. I also made sure all of the hoselines were ready to be pulled if called upon, since I was running the hoseline that day.

At approximately 9:55 A.M., Prince George's County Public Safety Communications (PSC) dispatched a box alarm for a reported fire in the dwelling to 6401 Gwinnett Lane in Bowie. The assignment consisted of four engines, two ladder trucks, one rescue-squad and a battalion chief. Engine 839 responded with four personnel. At 10:01, the crew laid a supply line about 100 feet to the address. The lieutenant of Engine 839 told PSC, "Have Engine 818 pick up my line at Gwinnett and Geoffry Road. I'm on the scene with a two-story, single-family dwelling. Nothing evident (nothing showing) ... I am establishing the Gwinnett Lane command." Indeed, we arrived with nothing evident. Because I was the lineman, I had to make a decision as to which to pull. Since the only choice I have is a two-inch or 1½-inch hose, I chose a 200-foot, 1½-inch line with a breakaway nozzle. Normally, I would pull a 200-foot, two-inch line with a fog nozzle, but I had no fire evident and was not with my normal crew so I wanted to make sure I had more mobility if I needed to advance my line.

When I got to the tailboard of the engine, I noticed light-brown smoke coming from a roof vent. I was thinking we possibly had a small room-and-contents fire on the second floor. I got to the A/D corner of the house and noticed more brown smoke coming from a crack on the side of a basement window. Once I relayed this information to the lieutenant, I started to think of basement fire operations. Just before we made entry, Chief 819 arrived and took command. Realizing his third-due special service (a special service is a truck or rescue company) in charge of rapid intervention was understaffed with two personnel, he requested an additional engine and truck company for the rapid intervention team.

Just as the forcible-entry person opened the unlocked door, the second-due engine started to pull the backup line from Engine 839 and was met with a hazy blackish-brown smoke from ceiling to floor. This made me think that the fire had either smoldered itself out or that it was deeply seated in the house, like many basement fires.

We needed to find the basement stairs. As I advanced my line on the first floor with zero visibility, I asked the lieutenant what he had on the thermal imager. He responded, "Everything is white." I pointed my nozzle to the ceiling and opened it to see how hot it really was, and only a little water came back down (due to the heat). As I advanced my line, I felt heat to my left and saw fire. I yelled to my lieutenant that I thought I found the seat of the fire and that I needed more line to get around a corner. Little did I know at the time that the forcible-entry firefighter went back to the front door to make sure the door had not shut on the hoseline.

While on my knees pulling the line, I felt a sudden drop and no longer felt the hose in my hands. When I landed, I ended up on my right side with my facemask ajar and my helmet hanging forward. I quickly resealed my facemask, placed my helmet back on my head and realized that my right glove was missing. The heat on my right arm was bad and I was thinking it was broken. I placed my hand in my coat pocket and stood up. I thought I might have fallen off a step into a living room a few inches down. Unfortunately, the fire I was trying to extinguish was higher than where it was when I just saw it and I realized that I must be in the basement.

Thinking there might be a hole above me, I started yelling up to my crew (through my mask) to try to alert them to stay away from that area. Still in zero visibility, I remembered that I had my personal radio on me. At 10:10, I grabbed my extended microphone and called out, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." Realizing that I was on "talk-around" (a non-repeated channel that can be heard only within a small distance, usually the distance of a typical fireground), I quickly switched my radio over to "A mode" (the repeated fireground channel). Then I heard command telling PSC to activate the Mayday tones (a designated high-pitch tone to alert units that a Mayday is taking place). Command asked for the distressed firefighter to give his last location. I gave my L.U.N.A.R (Location, Unit, Name, Assignment, Resources needed/Air supply), "Mayday, this is Firefighter Wells from Engine 839. I fell through a hole into the basement. I'm at the end of the line of 39. I need an attack ladder to get out."

Once I knew that command received my message, I fluttered my PASS device, letting it have a 10-second burst, then I reset it and repeated the process again and again. Seconds later, the crew of Engine 839 heard the Mayday and PASS device activating, found the nozzle next to the hole and flowed water down on top of me. I tried searching one-handed to see if I could get reoriented. I felt banisters to a stairwell to my right. I now started to think that the "closet" I was in really was a stairwell that had burned through. What also felt discomforting was how I kept seeing flames popping out of smoke to my right. This made me think there was a basement fire. I realized I needed to get to the left of the basement. As I searched left, I found a desk against the wall and thought for a second to search the wall and possibly find an exterior exit. However, I am not a gambling man and realized I had a hole right above me, water flowing down on top of me and any second a ladder that I could climb up to safety. My final decision was to stay where I was and wait for the ladder.

On the outside with only two engines, a ladder truck, a battalion chief and two volunteer chiefs on scene, command passed the incident command to Battalion Chief 802 and had him switch to an alternate channel with all of the other units that were not on scene yet. Chief 819 took command of rapid intervention team operations that stayed on the original fireground channel and assigned Chief 818, Engine 818 and Truck 819 rapid intervention team duties.

Truck 819 entered through side A and tried to find to basement steps. The truck lieutenant quickly realized that the layout of the house was odd and decided to pull his crew out and enter through side C. Once on side C, Truck 819 broke out a sliding glass door and searched ahead of the redeploying Engine 818. Performing a right-handed search pattern, the crew found an interior door and tried opening it. Debris blocked the door, so they forced their way into the room. At 10:14, the ventilation of the sliding glass door and the interior door being forced provided me with enough visibility to see smoke clearing and I crawled to the door where I was met by Truck 819 and exited the house via side C. I was taken to a burn center nearby and treated for a third-degree burn to my abdomen, sprained back, sprained right shoulder and sprained right arm. As soon as I was released from the hospital, I wanted to go back to the house on Gwinnett Lane and try to piece together what had happened.

With the help of Prince George's County Fire Investigations, I found that the fire had started in a kitchen island. The house was tightly sealed, which made sense seeing as how we had nothing evident when we arrived. A fire had started hours before anyone was home and burned undetected. When both the homeowner and fire department entered the house, oxygen also entered. This provided enough oxygen to let the fire flare up.

Another surprise to me was how the "closet" I thought I had found was actually an opening to the kitchen. The fire I had found was a refrigerator on fire. Once I had that knocked and as I pulled my line, there was a perfect cut-out of a hole where the island had fallen through the floor of the kitchen into the basement. The two-by-10 joists that were holding the island up were out-matched by the weight of the island and the fire conditions of the kitchen. As I pulled my line in zero visibility, I must have lost my grip on the line and "tumbled" 10 feet into the hole, landing on the stove, sink and other remnants of the island.

My burn was more of an odd situation. I had an eight-inch rip in my coat, which can be explained only by a nail or something of the sort catching the coat as I fell. When I was on my stomach giving my Mayday, the burned metal stove must have come in contact with a metal coat buckle, which burned a hole in my shirt. Another surprise was the banisters to the burned-out stairwell that I thought I found. The banisters were really exposed studs to an unfinished room in the basement.

There was no fire in the basement. The fire I saw above me was in the cabinets and running the floor joists above me. What made me realize how lucky I am was the decision of Truck 819's crew to pull out and reenter through a side-C door. To make the basement steps, they would have had to make an immediate left through the front door, gone through a computer room that then had a door leading into a bathroom that took you to a hallway.

Once I understood the incident, I wanted to see what it was that I could learn from it. I ended up alive, with minimal injuries and the fire went out, but there was room for improvement. From the beginning, I would have pulled my 200-foot, two-inch fog nozzle line. Second, a 360 of the house should have been completed. Third, I would have liked there to have been a window broken out as I advanced my line to clear some of the smoke and make the fire easier to find.

The most important lesson is not to be on talk-around mode. Talk-around is a nice tool at times, but during a working incident of any kind there is no room for it. Had I been in a situation where I was unable to access the toggle switch, I might have not been heard. The last lesson I learned was from a senior lieutenant of Truck 819 and that is to never stop thinking outside of the box. He and his crew were unable to find the basement steps and realized any kind of rescue operation inside would have been difficult due to the smoke conditions. A big piece of the puzzle was the crew entering side C and showing me the way to an exit.

I would like to thank a few people. First, I thank the incident commander, Chief Lee Havens. Listening to his audio, it sounded like he had a copy of the Mayday general order in front of him. His actions made that incident run as smooth as possible. Next, I thank the crew of Truck 819. Lieutenant Ed Parkinson, Firefighters Calvin Saunders, Andrew Spriggs and my old shift partner Termain Perry performed exceptionally when one of their own was in distress. Last, the Prince George's County Fire/EMS Training Academy and my normal crew need kudos. The training the academy provided me with and the re-emphasis that my crew had on general orders helped me walk away from this incident.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder's observations and communications with the writer and others regarding this close call:

As mentioned in the introduction, we need to focus on specific issues related to radio systems and use, in case you find yourself in a Mayday situation. First, let's be clear that while not the case here, there are numerous other challenges with many new digital radio systems (such as background noise interference with voice transmission, digital radio systems being built too cheaply to support the actual activity, systems being activated prior to realistic testing by fire personnel and other technical issues that cause problems for firefighters attempting to do their jobs). Many departments feel they have been forced into using digital radio systems that have not been properly planned, developed and tested under fire service conditions (using fire service standards) prior to being used as a potential life-saving tool for firefighters. We urge fire service leaders at all levels to get involved in planning, development and testing any radio system prior to usage.

Simply put, no matter what kind of radio system you are using, if you are an interior firefighter, are you able to safely and easily access the controls to operate your radio? What about the emergency button on some radio systems? Will pushing it "lock up" that channel or talk group potentially interfering with the rescue of a firefighter? If so, is the use of that button a good thing or not? Does anyone track (well before entry into the building) who (or, at minimum, what unit or riding position) has what radio so if that button is pushed? Will that Mayday button actually work on repeated and non-repeated fireground channels? How do you switch channels on your radio or go from one system to another? Where is your radio? How do you know what channel it is on? What if it gets bumped and the toggle switch or the channel selector changes? Can your dispatcher hear your fireground channels? If not, who will hear you when you call for help? All of the above scenarios are entirely possible.

What are your department's procedures once a Mayday has been transmitted? What do your (and mutual aid) firefighters on the fireground do when they hear the Mayday? What do the command officers do? What does the rapid intervention team do? What does the communications center do? Are there any "automatic" steps that are taken, be it on the fireground or by the communications center such as automatic response of special companies or additional companies - be it to support the Mayday operations, to provide additional staffing or to support the initial emergency while other companies focus on the Mayday?

Where do your keep your radio? In your radio pocket on the outside of your coat? If so, can you access it when your SCBA is on? Or is it worn on the outside on a strap? Can you access it if you have the immediate need to do so without taking of your gloves or having to guess what switch does what? What if you wear your radio on a strap on the inside of your coat? Is there any way for you to access it without opening up your coat? How easily could you change channels or access the controls?

While portable radios have become more complicated (and much more expensive), we have to be able to use them proficiently as we would any other tool. Radio training is critical in our ability to get out alive or report emergencies.

WILLIAM GOLDFEDER, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

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