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...

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 Firehouse.com 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 at:FSEducator@aol.com.