Safety Week 2011: Preventing the Mayday

When Maydays happen, they can often be attributed to firefighters getting turned around in buildings and becoming disoriented, or fire conditions changing without being noticed.

There's a legend of a fire chief who always put his gear on outside. The alarm would sound, he'd grab his coat, head out the bay doors and put it on. Some might call it an obsessive compulsive disorder, but the reason, so the legend goes, is that the chief was determining the direction of wind.

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It might be a bit farfetched, but it does illustrate the concept of situational awareness that all incident commanders must have to effect good outcomes at scenes and, above all else, to prevent Maydays. Wind direction and speed can factor in to virtually any scene, and knowing these details going into a situation can help with size up.

The idea of donning the coat in a deliberate, seemingly OCD manner also allowed the chief to collect his thoughts and focus on the battle before him.

The importance of situational awareness

Studies have shown that when Maydays happen, they can often be attributed to firefighters getting turned around in buildings and becoming disoriented, or fire conditions changing without being noticed.

Situational awareness is a responsibility of firefighters and commanders alike. Being aware of the conditions, surroundings and fire behavior are the most important elements of keeping safe and avoiding Maydays and the deployment of Rapid Intervention Teams. (RIT).

The best way to keep firefighters safe is to avoid trouble, said Rich Gasaway, a retired fire chief and firefighter with more than 30 years experience in the fire service.

"My whole focus is preventing Maydays from ever happening in the first place," he said. "You need strong situational awareness to know you're headed toward a Mayday. There are almost always clues present indicating problems."

Gasaway, 50, of Roseville, Minn., has earned a doctorate in philosophy and extensively studied neuroscience, particularly how the brain works under stress. He did his dissertation on "Fireground Command Decision Making: Understanding the Barriers Challenging Situational Awareness.

Additionally, Gasaway founded the Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness and Decision Making in St. Paul, Minn., and extensively lectures on the topic.

With 22 years of command officer experience, Gasaway has also personally experienced two situations where a Mayday could have been called, but the department in which he was involved at the time didn't use the "Mayday" system. Instead, they just said they were in trouble, he said.

That's what got him interested in studying situational awareness and pursuing it as a career after retirement. He readily admits there was a day in his fire service career when he couldn’t have cared less about the physiological science involved with stress, decision making and situational awareness.

"I drank the Kool-Aid about seven years ago," Gasaway said. "I learned that firefighting isn't just hose and water. It's what happens between the ears is what's really important."

The science of stress and stimulus

Gasaway said he became a "nerd" about situational awareness and traded in hose and ax for the classroom and books.

In his research, Gasaway has learned there are physical changes that happen to the body and brain when a person is subjected to stress and stimulus found on a fire scene.

"All the senses go on alert," he explains. "I want to see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, hopefully not taste it, but all the senses heighten and that's a good thing. But, we have only so much capacity to handle that stimulus."

Gasaway said that much like a computer processor can shut down when it's asked to do too much at one time, the body does the same thing – but a frozen incident commander or firefighter can spell disaster.

Commanders have told Gasaway that not only have they frozen and totally lost situational awareness, they have physically felt numb and unable to move.

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