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...


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.