Managing the Fireground Mayday

Over the past five years, the fire service has placed a new emphasis on firefighter rescue, an emphasis never before considered to be necessary.


Over the past five years, the fire service has placed a new emphasis on firefighter rescue, an emphasis never before considered to be necessary. Prior to the inception of NFPA 1500 (Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program) and training programs such as "Get Out Alive" and the ever-popular "Saving Our Own" program, few if any firefighters could ever fathom the possibility of needing to rescue one of their own.

As we consider this newfound focus, ask yourself these subtle questions. Have we taken the time to properly prepare our fireground commanders? Have we, as fire instructors and trainers dedicated the necessary time and training to ensure the safe and effective management of a "Mayday!" incident? To most, the answers are unquestionably, NO!

To consider such an event and the subsequent rescue in which a fellow firefighter or firefighters are trapped, lost or disoriented within a structure, to be routine, is to deny the truth. The mere phrase "Mayday!" has forever changed the careers and lives of many dedicated fire service professionals.

The initiation or transmission of a firefighter distress signal produces more stress and potential chaos then any other singular type of incident we may encounter throughout our careers. As firefighters, fire officers, and trainers we must develop a standard plan of action that permits our fireground strategist to properly manage and overcome these potentially chaotic and unquestionably stressful events. Our lives and the lives of our fellow firefighters depend on our preparatory efforts.

This article will provide three critical lessons for every fireground commander to consider as he/she prepares for what might ultimately be the most critical call of their career.

Photo Courtesy Timothy E. Sendelbach
Proper personnel management and accountability are essential to managing the "Mayday!"


Lessons learned from the recent and distant past continue to serve as our fateful reminders of operational failures and successes. The fire service abroad continues to provide us with detailed technical reports and investigative findings, which provide us with an unending, list of lessons learned. Although very few if any of these reports provide a detailed account of the Safety Engine/RIT deployment operations, one can quickly identify similarities that can be related to the proper management of a "Mayday!" incident.


The lack of pre-fire planning has claimed the lives of many fire service professionals in the recent past. Today's fire service mangers must use pre-fire planning to serve as a safety net when managing the modern fireground. Proper risk management coupled with a structured firefighter survival program enables the modern firefighter to quickly identify and understand the associated risk he/she is about to encounter. It is through these preparatory efforts that we can provide the modern firefighter with advantages unbeknownst to firefighters of the recent past.

Pre-fire Planning / Pre-fire Analysis - What we do in preparation for ultimately determines the success or failure of our efforts. Case studies have clearly identified that the success or failure of any "Mayday!" incident is a direct result of effective incident management and pre-incident planning. No better preparatory effort can be afforded the modern fireground commander then the pre-fire analysis.

Fire service building construction veteran Francis Brannigan once said, "There is no substitute for the fire department developing a system of accumulating and organizing information for retrieval at the time of the fire. This situation is analogous to military intelligence. It is vital to know the disposition of the enemy." Knowing your enemy is a rule every firefighter and fireground commander should live by. No fireground can ever be made entirely safe, but it goes without saying, if we know the enemy up front the odds of winning the war are dramatically increased in our favor.

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