MAYDAY On The Fireground

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.

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.


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?

The policy must stress to line supervisors the key role they play in the MAYDAY process. Lieutenants, captains and district or battalion chiefs are the eyes and ears of the IC. It is imperative that every member at an alarm scene (firefighters included) be empowered to call a MAYDAY. Without this privilege, timely and crucial actions cannot occur. All fire department personnel must understand there is a chance that they might have to call a MAYDAY for themselves or others.

Due to the dynamic nature of firefighting, situations develop which rapidly affect the entire fireground or incident scene. Sometimes, it is not feasible to request the IC to the rear of the building to make a determination on a hazardous condition.

All members should be at a level where they feel comfortable in being able to identify "imminent danger" (Syracuse General Order 2.19.1) and then appropriately following that up with the decision to transmit a MAYDAY. The need for a portable radio becomes obvious at this point.

Accountability is now among the hottest topics in the fire service, and it cannot be accomplished without a radio. Every team should have radio communication with the IC, to aid when there is a roll-call, and at the very least, to call for help.

What Happens When A MAYDAY Is Called?

Initially, all fireground personnel on the scene should be made aware of the MAYDAY. This task (simulcast a declared MAYDAY on all fireground channels) should be undertaken by someone not intimately involved with the MAYDAY.

In Syracuse, the fire dispatchers are distant from the alarm scene. Their base transmitters are more powerful than the portable radios used on the fireground. They often monitor channels other than the main dispatch channel, and possibly will be aware of the unfolding MAYDAY as the IC officially declares it.

Depending on conditions, portable radios might be sufficient to reach all members on the fireground to notify them to begin or institute a MAYDAY emergency. This is not meant to signal a free-for-all. The intention is to bring all personnel to the same heightened level of awareness.

Members must be cognizant and the MAYDAY procedure must address the basic idea that all fireground activities underway shall continue. Members shall not exit the building or incident area unless told to do so by the IC. Some fire service members have equated a MAYDAY call with total building evacuation. This is not the case.

WARNING! Portable radios and accountability tags do not prevent deaths on the fireground. Firefighters have lost their lives in various fires. They had portable radios but they did not call a MAYDAY.

Every department MAYDAY procedure must stress the priority such a request will receive. Once a MAYDAY has been declared over the fireground channels, it is key that all radio transmissions be kept to an absolute minimum. Only those transmissions that are directly related to the MAYDAY should take place.

Having additional radio channels for fireground use becomes critical in a situation when there are two separate incidents for example, a fire suppression effort and a MAYDAY rescue operation. If possible, the IC should direct all members to go to another channel for fireground operations. This will give the on-scene personnel a working channel that will not interfere with the MAYDAY channel.

Nuts And Bolts

The intent of the main body of the MAYDAY policy is to have in place a definite course of action that will occur every time a MAYDAY is declared. In Syracuse, the procedure includes actions for the dispatcher to follow. List exactly what is needed and expected from each member referenced in the guidelines.

The order in which help is summoned is critical. Prioritize the resources that will be most beneficial at a MAYDAY incident. It may look like a notification list or a resource list. It should be written so that there is no doubt who should be called, and the order in which they are notified. What is needed at this MAYDAY incident? More personnel in self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA)? An advanced life support (ALS) ambulance or medevac helicopter? More personnel in your work force pool from which to draw?

Pre-plan and identify the re-sources universally needed, no matter what type of MAYDAY situation is encountered. NFPA 1500 requires a rapid intervention team to be available throughout all stages of emergencies. The minimum requirement is for a two-member properly equipped team. If a MAYDAY occurs early in an incident, then this firefighter assist team is the logical choice to initiate any rescue effort. The 1500 standard requires a more definite assigned role of the rapid intervention crew as an incident unfolds.

In Syracuse, a MAYDAY gets an immediate (additional) response of three engine companies and one truck company. A second alarm, or some other automatic aid arrangement, may be the quickest and simplest way to obtain a dedicated rapid intervention crew while also meeting your goals at the MAYDAY incident.

There may arise a MAYDAY situation where tools or equipment not common to engine or truck companies are needed. Some communities may have a specialized collapse or rescue unit. Notify this company in the initial process. If there is no rescue company routinely dispatched in your community, then "special call a rescue" from another community immediately when a MAYDAY is declared.

If an ambulance is not routinely dispatched to fire incidents, then this also must be addressed in the MAYDAY procedure. Due to the nature of the situation (unknown degree and number of injuries), perhaps it would be in everyone's best interest to have two ambulances dispatched on any MAYDAY. This will then provide a second unit to cover civilian injuries or additional firefighter injuries. At the very least, an ALS ambulance needs to be included in the initial MAYDAY response.

It is also important to address the needs for additional line supervisors once second-alarm companies begin to arrive at the MAYDAY. Third- or fourth-due chiefs should be included on the MAYDAY request sheet. The incident rapidly escalates when a firefighter injury occurs. Supervising and controlling the fireground forces becomes even more critical in an effort to remain focused on the task at hand.

Written procedures should also address long duration operations. Additional specialized units such as cascades or rehab units should also be listed on the resource request list. While not as important as that hydraulic tool, their presence on the fireground will be valued in the long run. With speed dialers and personal pagers abundantly available, the entire MAYDAY recall or resource list can be notified within minutes.

Timely notification and requests for additional resources cannot be stressed enough. Local conditions will decide the response times of these MAYDAY companies. If there will be any delay, the procedures must address this weakness beforehand. Waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance or airbags is not acceptable.

Once these resources are on their way, what does the IC want from them? The MAYDAY policy must continue to make the incident flow smoothly by dove-tailing into the incident command system. An apparatus staging area will need to be set up. In Syracuse, the third-due engine (of the three MAYDAY engine companies responding) is required to respond to the fire station closest to the MAYDAY incident. According to the Syracuse general order, "This will give the IC the flexibility of an additional company close by and ready to respond if needed." It is not a move-up or fill-in company.

A work force of fresh troops also needs to be established in a manpower pool. The location of both these areas must be chosen by the IC. While tactics and strategy for a MAYDAY incident will be made up on the spot, it is imperative that as much preplanning as possible take place to maximize the rescue effort. Include a simple statement such as that given in the Syracuse general order: "Upon arrival at a MAYDAY, all members including drivers will report to the manpower pool in full protective gear, SCBA, spare bottle and hand tool."

Transmitting a MAYDAY is done over the radio. The IC needs resources immediately at a MAYDAY but someone else (the dispatcher) may be the one obtaining them. During the procedure writing and planning stage, a dialogue must take place and input obtained from fire dispatchers.

Many new E-911 systems are in the hands of authorities other than the fire chief. MAYDAY procedures need to be understood by civilian dispatchers. These individuals can find themselves dispatching police, fire and ambulance all within an eight-hour shift. Though "cross-training" is a manager's dream, it is not conducive to creating dispatchers who can specialize in one discipline.

Do not sacrifice any details of your MAYDAY strategy to outside agencies. Find out if the hardware is in place at the communication center to accomplish your plans. Do not relent until you get a commitment from all agencies to follow your MAYDAY procedures once they are in place. With the one word MAYDAY given to the dispatcher, a pre-planned process should begin immediately. There is no room for error or delay in the notification process.

Once all the critical dispatches and notifications are made, dispatchers should continue monitoring the radio frequencies to anticipate additional needs of the IC. They may pick up crucial transmissions that members on the fireground miss due to noises and distractions. In Syracuse, emphasis is placed on the role of the dispatchers due to their ability to mobilize resources without the distractions present at the incident.

What If You Are Trapped?

The arrival of personal alert safety system (PASS) devices has answered a problem for members unable to verbally respond due to their level of consciousness. These devices have helped to speed up the locating of downed firefighters.

If firefighters find themselves trapped yet still able to communicate via radio, then crucial information will be needed by the rescue teams. Where are they located? What is the problem? Is any special tool or piece of equipment needed to rescue them? The answer to these and other questions determines the direction of the rescue effort.

Once the MAYDAY procedure is written, the work is not finished. The system must be tested to ensure that all components will function as designed. A mock drill simulating a MAYDAY request should be conducted to see if the process will work when needed.

When writing these procedures, incorporate flexibility so that the IC's hands are not tied. Existing, and sometimes rigid, orders were written for the usual incident your department is accustomed to handling. Make no mistake, a MAYDAY incident can never be considered usual and will tax all fire department personnel to their limit. The Syracuse general order states, "The key to accomplishing the objectives of the incident commander shall be the discipline of fire personnel…(they) shall be prepared to respond to complex and exacting directives."

Writing a MAYDAY procedure will be time consuming due to the amount of pre-planning necessary. Add or delete components depending on local conditions. Make sure you have a MAYDAY procedure in place. It may be looked upon as a tool that, it is hoped, never has to be used.

Mark McLees is captain of the Syracuse, NY, Fire Department Rescue Company.