Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

What are the Mayday decision parameters for firefighters? How do we teach the Mayday decision-making process to firefighters? How much Mayday practice do firefighters need?These must be the most frighting three words that can be heard over the fire ground...

By now some readers are thinking fighter pilots have it easy because the instruments in the cockpit do not change. The positions of the needles move and when enough gages are in the red it is time to eject.

Firefighters do not have gages to read or clearly defined input data and the critical information is dynamic throughout the emergency event. Each type of structure we enter, i.e. single family, duplex, garden apartment, triple-decker, high-rise, commercial, industrial, taxpayer, etc., may require specific mayday decision parameters. Once we determine the parameters we need to recognize them and act correctly. Will we?

Over a year ago the Chesterfield, VA Fire Department conducted a lieutenant's test. Part of the testing included a field activity. Seventeen candidates for lieutenant were taken to a large abandoned building, 80 x 120 with an open floor plan. One at a time, in full turnouts, SCBA with less the 700psi, portable radio, and Nomex hood on backwards covering their face mask, each candidate was taken into the building and told the following. "You are the OIC of the first engine operating at a fire in a Shopping Mall.

You and your crew are stretching a 1 3/4 hand line at the top of the escalator on the second floor and you encounter "cold" smoke and zero visibility. While maintaining voice contact with your crew, you have been searching for the fire. You no longer have voice contact with you crew and are now lost and disoriented. This is not a training scenario, your life depends on your actions!" (By Heather Casey. Test asks: Can you Survive? Firehouse.Com News, Sept. 28, 2000). The correct actions to take were:


  • Declare an emergency on the radio
  • Activate the emergency button
  • Announce ?Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, Emergency Traffic?
  • Activate the PASS device
  • Successfully merge with the RIT
  • Of the 17 candidates, only four took the correct action immediately. The fastest times to complete the tasks were four to five minutes. Some of the candidates never called Mayday (Personal communications Capt. Dave Daniels, Chesterfield FD Sept. 25, 2001).

This outcome should raise concern for all of us because the candidates were put into the Mayday decision parameters and most did not make the correct decision immediately. In other words they were told the gages are in the red and still did not react correctly.

Remember, on the real fire ground each firefighter must read the gages, determine the meaning, and then make the Mayday decision.

Again I ask. What are the Mayday decision parameters for firefighters? How do we teach the Mayday decision-making process to firefighters? How much Mayday practice do firefighters need?

I don't have the answers to these questions. The military aviation method of creating ejection doctrine may serve as a model for us to use in answering these questions. We need to get our best minds researching the questions to create firefighter Mayday doctrine.

I do know this. A firefighter?s decision to declare a Mayday is made in the fire station before they get on the apparatus. So, at your next company drill, ask this question. When would you call Mayday?

Dr. Burton A. Clark, EFO is the Management Science Program Chair for the National Fire Academy and Director of an Emergency Support at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. . Burt writes and lectures nationally on fire service research and professional development. If you would like to contact Burton, he can be reached at