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Why Firefighters Call 'Mayday'

Most veteran firefighters will admit that one of the most significant transmissions that one can hear on the fireground is a “Mayday” call. The time parameters associated with locating and removing a lost, injured or otherwise incapacitated firefighter are extremely limited, and a lot of resources and equipment need to mobilize in order for operations to come to a successful conclusion. The reactions of the Rapid Intervention Crew, along with the support of the companies on-scene involved with the firefight, have to work closely towards achieving the best outcome given the emergent conditions the “victims” find themselves in.

One of (if not) the largest obstacle involving firefighter rescue is that responders are operating in a reactive mode; that is, the “emergency” within the emergency has happened, and resources are reacting to the incident as it has unfolded. I am a firm believer that in order to best prepare any firefighter for a Mayday situation, they need to be trained to avoid winding up in that exact situation (see Photo 1). This month, we will identify some of the more common reasons why a firefighter will call a Mayday, and identify some steps to make ourselves more proactive in minimizing the potential of having an emergency at the incident.

Training And Preparation

From the inception of a firefighter’s education, the focus on their personal safety takes a paramount position in their skills and capabilities. At some point after Boot School, many firefighters place safety secondary to the performance of skills on the fireground. Make no mistake about it; we take a significant risk from time to time in the discharge of our duties. However, there are ways to minimize the risks through training, education and preparation. There should be a significant focus on training today’s responders in identifying shortcomings on the fireground that may lead to a situation resulting in a firefighter emergency. When these situations arise, the preparations that the firefighter takes before accepting the risk are vital to their success. What equipment will they step off the apparatus with? Are they trained to know their riding assignments and understand that no one steps off the rig empty-handed? What personal equipment do they have in the event that a “Mayday” situation arises? A minimum amount of equipment that the team should have includes:

  • A radio
  • Thermal imager
  • Some type of escape/bailout system (see Photo 2)
  • Tools (irons, officer hook, snips, Rex tool, etc.)

Having a basic equipment cache with the team will help them be proactive in their own Rapid Intervention event, should one arise.

Fire Growth Management

Firefighters attend thousands of hours of training throughout their careers. Many of these hours are spent improving on skills that are removed, so to speak, from the original mission:

Fighting Fires - There are many departments that provide a broad variety of services to their communities in the form of EMS, rope rescue, extrication and the like. While these services are vital to the department’s mission, much, if not most of our time is spent actively engaged in fire suppression. So, wouldn’t it make perfect sense that we as responders put more emphasis in fire behavior? Looking at the numbers for line-of-duty injuries and deaths, there is a significant difference in casualties resulting from fires than there are in the world of technical rescue. Yet many responders spend innumerable hours in various training, while limiting their education in fire behavior to less than 10 hours a year, on average. These values suggest that most firefighters do not re-visit fire behavior after Boot School kicks them out into the field.

When we think about the combustion process, we must consider the size of the building (compartment) that the fire is in. Based upon the fire compartment’s size, the fuel’s chemical and physical properties, ventilation profile, surrounding fuel load, and location and extent of the fire, first-arriving companies can be faced with a substantial fire condition upon arrival. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) tests on Heat Release Rates (HRR) have shown that tenability levels for survival can decrease dramatically with a fuel load of approximately 2.5 MegaWatts (MW) of heat energy; this can be achieved with a single upholstered chair within the space of a single 10-foot by 10-foot room. To halt this rapid fire progression, a few tasks have to be performed without delay: we have to make entry, prepare for appropriate ventilation based on location of the fire, we have to rapidly get water on the fire and someone needs to coordinate these tasks to occur at precisely the right time. If even one step is missed (no hoseline in place, incorrect vent opening or location, wrong nozzle flow to handle BTU’s, no tactical plan in place) things can go very wrong, potentially leading to injury or loss of life, for both civilians and firefighters (see Photo 3).

We owe it to our families and ourselves to know what is going on within the compartment that the fire is raging. Identifying changing conditions in smoke, rate of heat release, and compromising damage to the structure will help keep us from taking on a level of risk that has very limited returns, if any. Don’t leave it to someone else to define your safety; understand what kind of results coordinated suppression, ventilation and fireground support operations will have on the big picture, and what may occur when these priorities are not being done.

Officer Capabilities

No matter the rank, a fire officer has to possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to successfully mitigate an emergency to a successful conclusion. If you wear bars or horns, then you have the responsibility to know that your job is to develop a plan of action that identifies a strategic path to follow to solve the problem with the resources that you have. The fireground is not designated as a “trial and error” plan of attack; crews will be assigned to perform operations in hostile environments, and if the troops are not performing these operations within an acceptable, coordinated fashion, as error in timing can result in a crew being placed in a compromised position. Operating in an offensive mode without a formal plan is nothing more than legalized freelancing, plain and simple. All of the players need to know what is in the playbook, and the fire officer has to direct these players according to the strategy identified.

Another issue that can result in a potential Mayday situation is when officers are working at task level instead of from an administrative level. Let me be clear here; no one is above rolling hose or cleaning equipment, period. But, when the heat is on, officers must serve as the eyes and ears of the incident commander (IC), providing critical information regarding what is going on inside the structure during the operation. Without that feedback, it becomes difficult for the IC to determine for certain that the plan is indeed working. When the officer is inside performing tasks instead of looking for changes in conditions, then a potential catastrophe can occur without any lead time for the interior crews.

Fireground Operations

The NIST report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments identifies a total of 22 fireground tasks that are performed throughout the incident. The report further concluded that the following factors had the most significant impact on the success of firefighting operations:

  1. Overall on-scene time
  2. Time to get water on the fire
  3. Ground ladders and ventilation
  4. Primary search
  5. Hose stretch time

To address the rapid fire progression and increased rate of heat release that occurs within that time parameter, a few tasks must be initiated with the arrival of the initial assignment:

1. Incident Command: Lack of command of the incident from the first response onward has been cited in many line-of-duty death (LODD) reports. At the core of an out-of-control incident is an incompetent IC; be certain the crews are operating in the appropriate mode of attack. Simply put, offensive operations save citizens, defensive operations save firefighters; make sure everyone understands the plan.

2. Forcible Entry/Access: This crew will make access into the structure to allow for other firefighters to carry out their assigned tasks. Based upon construction, occupancy, security issues and home-made devices, this can become a repeatedly formidable issue to contend with.

3. Search & Rescue: The rescue and removal of victims within the compartment as quickly as possible is directly related to their survivability potential. Toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide are present at levels over 3,000 parts per million (PPM), resulting in lethal concentrations within the compartment.

4. Ventilation: Fire growth/HRR and ventilation go hand in hand. For example, consider the wood burning stove; if you want the fire to get bigger, open the damper (i.e., front door of a dwelling). Close the damper/door, and the flames dissipate. As long as there is fuel and heat, there will be significant growth by air supply. Open the flue (roof) to the stove, and smoke is allowed to exit, being replaced with fresh air. So the bottom line is simple: control strategic ventilation and you control the fire.

5. Water Supply and Suppression: Insufficient flow rate, whether through limited pump capabilities or lack of adequate personnel to position ample handlines, will compound fire conditions and heat release rates. Bringing the right amount of water for BTU consumption and steam conversion is what tackles HRR in its tracks. Moving these lines (note plural here) requires an adequate number of firefighters.

6. Rapid Intervention: State codes, national fire and labor standards and case studies have all identified the mandatory need for a qualified Rapid Intervention Crew (RIC) on-scene during emergency incidents that require entry into an Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) Atmosphere (see Photo 4). A compartment fire (structure) is such an event.

Think about it; which one of the above mentioned tasks would you accept not being completed within the first critical minutes upon arrival? Each of them plays an integral part in the overall success of the operation, causing the strategy of the IC to fall short and possibly result in a “Mayday” situation. The bottom line is this: Fire growth is not magic; it does not get swayed by popular opinion, elevated tone or political gain. It is chemistry and physics, period. In over two decades of firefighting, I have only seen two true methods to influence the combustion process: adequate, timely ventilation and copious amounts of strategically placed water. To complete these tactics, multiple supporting operations have to be in place as well. Without them, the potential for the Mayday on scene will dramatically increase.


Situations may arise from time to time that may result in a crew activating a Mayday transmission due to an unforeseen event in the structure (collapse, partial failure of a compartment, flashover, backdraft, etc…). However, statistics show that many times the reason for the Mayday is a direct result of a failure from within the management of the scene. It is imperative that all of the members operating at the emergency know the plan, and understand the anticipated outcome. Keeping communications open and performing the assigned tasks in a synchronized fashion will limit the potential of hearing the Mayday over the radio at your next scene.

Until next time, stay focused and stay safe. 

MICHAEL P. DALEY is a lieutenant and training officer with the Monroe Township, NJ, Fire District No. 3, and is an instructor with the Middlesex County Fire Academy where he is responsible for rescue training curriculum development. Mike has an extensive background in fire service operations and holds degrees in business management and public safety administration. Mike serves as a rescue officer with the New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 1 and is a managing member for Fire Service Performance Concepts, a consultant group that provides assistance and support to fire departments with their training programs and course development. Mike was recently awards the ISFSI's Master Fire Instructor title. Mike has been guest on several podcasts including: Successful Rescue Operations in Today's Fire Service, Preparing for Tomorrow's RIT Deployment Today andBasement Fire Tactics Roundtable podcasts. You can reach Michael by e-mail