MAYDAY On The Fireground

Mark McLees stresses the importance of having effective MAYDAY procedures and offers some advice on preparing them.


The operation had gone to a defensive mode due to the heavy fire volume in the mattress factory. The priority was to contain the fire to the structure of origin. Exposure 2 was a 10-foot alley; exposure 3 was a rear yard; and exposure 4 was a similar attached three-story building of ordinary...


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The operation had gone to a defensive mode due to the heavy fire volume in the mattress factory. The priority was to contain the fire to the structure of origin. Exposure 2 was a 10-foot alley; exposure 3 was a rear yard; and exposure 4 was a similar attached three-story building of ordinary construction.

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Photo by Ed Ellison
Every fire department, large or small, career or volunteer, should have a MAYDAY policy in place. Firefighters will take comfort knowing that, if they become trapped or lost, there will be a systematic and disciplined rescue effort made for them.

All windows in the rear were boarded up with plywood, even though the occupant was still in business. A tower ladder was being used to pull this plywood off the upper-story windows to allow master stream penetration to the seat of the fire.

Without warning, the rear wall collapsed, crashing down onto the bucket and the two firefighters operating in it. A ton of bricks completely buried the working end of the tower ladder. Instinctively, the side 3 sector chief called a "MAYDAY."

It is at incidents such as this where a well-thought-out plan and formal department policy are invaluable. Every fire department, large or small, career or volunteer, should have a MAYDAY policy in place. This article will highlight one department's plan, and suggest key elements to include in any plan.

What Is A MAYDAY?

Webster's Dictionary defines MAYDAY as "an international radiotelephone signal word used as a distress call, to introduce a distress message, or by distress traffic." The public may envision a Navy fighter pilot calling a MAYDAY with his jet in flames from enemy attack. We in the fire service should immediately think of a partner in trouble when a MAYDAY is called or declared.

Does your department have written procedures that specifically address what is to happen during a MAYDAY? Most often, communication standard operating procedures (SOPs) contain MAYDAY procedures. This is because the call of MAYDAY is normally given over the fireground channel for all to hear. MAYDAY procedures are like any other tool that the incident commander (IC) has at his or her disposal.

Every member of a fire department from the chief to the firefighter has a vested interest in a well-written MAYDAY procedure. Having pre-planned procedures for a MAYDAY will give the IC more freedom to concentrate on the rescue operation and not be distracted by the time-consuming yet necessary task of requesting additional resources. Firefighters will take comfort knowing that, if they become trapped or lost, there will be a systematic and disciplined rescue effort made for them. This will not, and cannot happen without tremendous forethought and planning.

Why Is A MAYDAY Called?

The first step in writing a MAYDAY procedure is to define what criteria make up a MAYDAY situation. Simply put, a fellow firefighter needs help. It may be decided that a MAYDAY is "an indication that a life threatening situation has developed" (FDNY Communications Manual, Chapter 9-4.1.1 or it may be written in terms that include "fire personnel trapped, in imminent danger, or in need of immediate assistance" (Syracuse Fire Department General Order 2.19.1). Do not limit the plan to fireground incidents. When writing a MAYDAY procedure, consider including scenarios such as hazardous materials, confined space, auto extrication and mass-casualty incidents.

Some fire departments concisely define when to transmit a MAYDAY. These definitions include "indication of imminent collapse; structural collapse has occurred; unconscious firefighter; life-threatening injuries or even missing members" as the FDNY Communications Manual states.

There is the potential for a MAYDAY anytime and anywhere personnel operate. Local conditions and level of service provided by fire departments will determine the potential risk that members are exposed to on any given day. The availability of on-scene resources will govern the need for additional help.

Who Can Call A MAYDAY?

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