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...


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.

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