"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!" OK, Now What?

Before we go to this month?s Close Call case study, I want to throw a few thoughts on the table regarding firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Several readers recently e-mailed, ?Does it seem like there are more and more of them?? Yes, to me it does...


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Finally, the ladder was placed through the hole. The firefighter saw it go over his head and grabbed it. His first attempt to ascend the ladder was met with great heat and fire and he had to retreat while the area was cooled. A second attempt met with the same frustration. Finally, the third attempt was successful. As the firefighter came through the hole, he was grabbed by the both crews and pulled from the building, where he was handed off to a mutual aid ambulance company.

The deputy chief called for a personnel accountability report (PAR) at that time and was able to confirm that all companies were out of the building and accounted for. The time from the Mayday call to the confirmation of the PAR was six minutes!

Shortly thereafter, a collapse of the floor in that A/D sector occurred, followed by heavy fire in the A/B sector in the basement. The first floor continued to collapse in other areas, leading to a defensive attack. Suppression crews continued on the ?white? fireground frequency, per my order, due to concern over switching the multiple companies a second time. It was determined that if another Mayday was transmitted, we would turn fire operations back to ?red? fireground and keep rescue on ?white? fireground.

Unfortunately, we have all read of Mayday situations in which the outcomes were severe injuries or in many cases fatalities. In this situation, the outcome was limited to some bumps and bruises to the downed firefighter. I believe the fortunate outcome can be attributed to some definite factors.

First and foremost was training. I trust that most departments train like we do on rapid intervention teams, self-rescue and emergency scene communications. Our training officer reviews our procedures on a regular basis along with conducting practical evolutions in training homes.

Additionally, we are fortunate that in our mutual aid system, rapid intervention team procedures, along with self-rescue techniques, are constantly reviewed and refined by our training and safety officers to better prepare our personnel for such situations. In fact, just a month earlier, rapid intervention team training was conducted in a commercial occupancy for our mutual aid system as a result of the loss of a firefighter suffered by the Phoenix Fire Department.

I also credit the mutual aid truck company and my remaining crew for their quick and decisive tactics. There was no panic, just action, as evidenced by the time it took to retrieve our downed firefighter. Both crews operated as one with the common goal to save their fellow firefighter. Without the composure exhibited by both the downed firefighter and his partner, this incident could have had a very different outcome. For just a moment, place yourself in the downed firefighter?s situation ? on a fire you think you have well under control, with no warning you plunge into a basement that is involved in fire:

  • Would your first thought be to prevent your partner from falling in behind you?
  • Would you then remember you needed to transmit a Mayday?
  • Would you control the very natural urge to panic and instead of remaining at the hole, stray away in hopes of finding another way out?

How many times have we heard that story of a lost firefighter continuing to move so that companies can not get a good location on the individual and ultimately run out of time? The Phoenix Fire Department graciously shared with the fire service that it was a contributing factor in that tragic loss. If our downed firefighter had left the hole, what would have happened, given his depleting air supply, the potential fire growth and our time-consuming challenge to find an exterior entrance to the basement?

How about his partner? One minute, you are in voice contact with your fellow firefighter, proud of your knockdown of this fire and the next thing you know he is gone, telling you he has fallen through to a basement involved in fire? Would you know that receipt of his Mayday message needs to be confirmed? That you are his lifeline on a psychological as well as practical level? Only you know exactly where he went down and where he is now. You cannot afford to do anything but control your emotions.

How about the command staff on the scene, the captain, lieutenant and deputy chief? Do you think it was important that they remembered exactly what their procedures are in a Mayday situation? No time to refer to a manual, but instead you must react. Remember, there is still a fire growing and your ability to continue suppression efforts may be crucial to the survival of the downed firefighter. Their commands and the tone of those orders can promote confidence or spread despair.