Improving Mayday Procedures

Jake Hoffman presents 8 training priorities based on research and LODD incidents.

Alternate egress routes may have to be created due to collapse, and training scenarios should include this skill whenever possible.
Alternate egress routes may have to be created due to collapse, and training scenarios should include this skill whenever possible.
Photo by Jake Hoffman

The concept of firefighter rescue and rapid intervention has constantly evolved throughout the history of the American fire service. While innovations in technology have been instrumental in both firefighter safety and rescue, there has not been a stronger factor in the development of firefighter rescue techniques and rapid-intervention methodologies than, unfortunately, the lessons learned from line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). Such lessons have led to the creation of the Denver Drill, Nance Drill and Pittsburgh Drill, among others.

Studies conducted by fire departments in Phoenix, AZ, and Asheville, NC, following LODDs have given the fire service a realistic view of the skills, equipment and time required to affect a firefighter rescue. Further, the research done by Project Mayday (projectmayday.net) has provided the fire service insight like never before into what is really happening on the fireground when an emergency occurs.

In order to give their firefighters the best chance for survival in a mayday situation, modern fire departments need to heed these lessons that have been learned through tragedy and modify their rapid-intervention procedures to match the hazards and needs of the 21st-century fireground. 

Research from real incidents

After the loss of Firefighter Brett Tarver in 2001, the Phoenix Fire Department (PFD) conducted a study that entailed over 200 rapid-intervention team (RIT) drills with over 1,100 firefighters to evaluate the response to a firefighter down emergency. These drills were conducted in three vacant structures—a bar, movie theatre and warehouse—and simulated two firefighters having emergencies in zero visibility.

While the results of this study were shocking to many, they were not a surprise to the PFD because some of the statistics and times were eerily similar to those from the rescue of Tarver. Some of the results: 3-minute response time from mayday to RIT entering the structure, 5–6 minutes from entry to contact with the down firefighter, and, on average, 12 firefighters needed to rescue one firefighter. 

On July 28, 2011, Captain Jeffery Bowen of the Asheville, NC, Fire Department (AFD) lost his life while fighting a high-rise fire. After this LODD, the AFD developed a live-fire rapid-intervention scenario for 200 of its members to complete. Results of the Asheville study include an average of just under 7 minutes from RIT entry to locating the downed firefighter, approximately 38 minutes from mayday to victim removal, and an average of 15 firefighters to complete the rescue of one firefighter.

Despite the hard work and suffering of the Phoenix and Asheville fire departments, many firefighters across the country failed to believe that these statistics were realistic for their department; however, an analysis of other LODDs corroborates the findings of these two studies and makes a strong argument for a change in rapid-intervention mindset. 

On Jan. 26, 2014, Private James Dickman and Private Stephen Machcinski of the Toledo, OH, Fire & Rescue Department were killed in an apartment fire on Magnolia Street. Although this structure was far different than those found in Phoenix or Asheville, a review of incident times and interviews paints a picture that is far more similar to these previous LODDs than most would have expected. 

The Magnolia Street fire occurred in a two-story, ordinary construction (Type 3) building with an apartment above a two-car garage. Dickman and Machcinski were overcome by rapid fire growth while in the second-floor apartment and a mayday was called. This apartment was approximately 600 square feet and was full of clutter (Collyer’s Mansion/hoarder conditions). From the time of the mayday, it took 16 minutes to locate and remove the first firefighter and 24 minutes to locate and remove the second firefighter. 

The FDNY Safety Committee compiled data from serious/fatal injuries to New York City firefighters from 1989 to 2018. Some of the statistics from this study:

·      55 percent of the time, the firefighter’s SCBA facepiece is off;

·       76 percent of the time, it is first-alarm units who find the downed firefighter; and

·       76 percent of the time, there was no air remaining in the firefighter’s SCBA. 

Another source of information for departments to use when updating their RIT programs is Project Mayday, led by Chief (ret.) Don Abbot. Project Mayday is a comprehensive study of mayday responses, incidents and prevention. While it has evaluated thousands of maydays, the Project Mayday team believes these numbers only represent approximately 10 percent of annual maydays.

Through its research, Project Mayday has found that 86 percent of time, the mayday firefighter either self-rescues or is assisted by their own crew or another unit already on the interior. The RIT is the first unit to contact and rescue the downed firefighter in only 8 percent of cases.

Simple vs. complex RIT scenarios

When developing a RIT program, it is imperative that fire departments focus their efforts on the types of maydays that are most likely to be encountered. These scenarios can be split into two groups: simple and complex. 

Simple RIT scenarios are no less dangerous or easier to complete than complex RIT scenarios; however, their completion does not typically require advanced or technical skills and equipment. Examples of simple RIT scenarios include low-air/out-of-air in a residential structure, wire entanglement, lost or disoriented in a residential structure, fall into basement, medical problems, and egress cut off by fire. These scenarios are most often resolved by a combination of interior crews and the RIT. Little to no additional help is needed. Contact is made with the downed firefighter, and rescue plans put into motion fairly quickly.

Complex RIT scenarios typically require additional skills, staffing or equipment, and/or occur in large buildings. Emergencies such as trapped by collapse, fall through the roof, low air or disoriented in a commercial occupancy are examples of complex RIT scenarios that will require additional equipment and personnel above the initial RIT team. These rescues typically take far longer to complete than simple RIT scenarios and, as evidenced by the Phoenix study, additional maydays will most likely be called during the rescue.

Just as fire attack tactics differ from a single-family residential dwelling to a big-box hardware store, so too must RIT strategies change at these occupancies.

Rapid-intervention goals and training priorities

The staffing for rapid intervention can come from many different sources. While some larger departments can afford to assign an engine, truck and/or rescue squad just for RIT, smaller departments sometimes have to assemble a RIT using whatever personnel they have available at the time or even rely on mutual aid. Wherever RIT staffing comes from, one thing is certain: RIT strategies need to be updated to include lessons learned and modern methodologies. 

With the information gained from the aforementioned tragedies and studies, it should be obvious that the American fire service needs a paradigm shift regarding rapid intervention. Steps departments can use in training to improve firefighter survivability during a mayday event include:

1.     Stress self-survival skills

2.     Reduce time to contact (whether interior crews or RIT)

3.     Empower interior crews to respond to mayday events

4.     Focus on flexibility and rapid response

5.     Split RIT

6.     Minimize tools to maximize effectiveness

7.     Focus on simple skills

8.     Conduct realistic and ongoing training scenarios 

Let’s address these critical training points in greater detail.

 

Self-survival: The first step in improving mayday outcomes is establishing a solid foundation in self-survival skills for all firefighters. If a firefighter can evacuate prior to needing to call a mayday or begin self-rescue while waiting for RIT and other crews, their chances of survival increase exponentially. The importance of carrying bailout equipment and some type of cutter for disentanglement cannot be stressed enough. Even if the mayday firefighter cannot completely mitigate their problem, attempting self-rescue will not only reduce the amount of work needed to be performed by RIT, but also keep the firefighter focused and task-oriented. Too often firefighters are trapped or killed while surrounded by half-inch drywall, so it must be stressed through training that the mayday firefighter CANNOT give up hope and must do whatever possible to assist in their rescue. 

Reduce time to contact: Reducing the time to contact, or time it takes for someone to reach the mayday firefighter, should be a top priority in rapid-intervention procedures. Whether it is interior crews or RIT who locates the firefighter first, by reducing the time that firefighter is alone, and potentially without air, we improve their chances for survival. Reducing the time to contact can be accomplished in primarily two ways: 1) by empowering company officers of interior crews to respond to a mayday as they see fit and 2) by positioning RIT for rapid response.

Empower crews: As detailed in Project Mayday and the FDNY study, interior crews are almost always the first to reach the downed firefighter. Regardless of policy and procedure, firefighters will do whatever they can to save one of their own on the interior of a structure. Departments should consider modifying their mayday/RIT policy to empower company officers to make smart decisions in the event of a mayday. Even if the interior crews cannot affect a rescue of the downed firefighter, they can relay real-time information regarding the situation to RIT and request needed equipment or staffing. 

Flexible and rapid response: Before even considering the complete rescue of a mayday firefighter, the initial goal of the RIT should be a flexible and rapid response. Just as no two fires are the same, no two RIT activations will be identical. Therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is foolhardy and dangerous. While a mayday activation in a commercial structure will dictate a rope-assisted or tagline-based search that involves the entire RIT, a mayday activation in a single-family home may be better handled by making entry from two directions or perhaps leaving two members of the four-person RIT outside until the situation has been evaluated. 

Split RITs: In its review of the Magnolia Street LODDs, the Toledo Fire & Rescue Department noticed that the RIT officer had decided to split his crew, with two members positioned on the Charlie/Delta corner of the structure and two members positioned on the Alpha/Bravo corner. When asked about this by the investigation team, this lieutenant stated that, “It was a strange building with multiple exits,” and he felt that if a mayday were to occur, the RIT response time would be shorter. Since this event, the department has adopted the practice of “splitting RIT” on most working fires.

Minimize tools: The next step in improving rapid-intervention efficiency is to limit the number of tools required to establish the RIT sector. Too often pictures are found on fire service websites that show a RIT staged at a working fire with either a Stokes basket full of equipment or a tarp with the contents of the nearest heavy rescue. Assembling equipment for every possible contingency is a tremendous waste of time that only prevents the RIT from becoming ready as quickly as possible.

In order to remain flexible and quickly respond, the team should limit their initial tools to “The Big 5.” These are the minimum required tools to establish RIT and allow the RIT team to mitigate most mayday events or at least provide an air supply and begin removal of the downed firefighter. The tools include

1.     RIT pack with spare facepiece

2.     Thermal imaging camera

3.     Rope

4.     Irons

5.     Hoseline

While all five tools might not be used on every RIT activation, they are easy to rapidly assemble prior to a mayday and do not require the use of a Stokes basket to carry them or a tarp to organize them.

Simple skills: While there are many ways to accomplish any given task, it is easy to overburden your firefighters with information so that while they know multiple techniques, they aren’t proficient in any of them. The stress involved with responding to a mayday call cannot be overemphasized; therefore, skills should be honed and perfected so that their performance requires little to no thought. For example, in order to be an effective RIT, each member must understand their assigned tasks and the tools required. By assigning each member a tool, it will be clear what their responsibility is during a RIT activation.

Simple skills such as facepiece changeovers, universal air connection (UAC) transfill, harness conversion, drags/carries, and below-grade rescues should be the foundation of any RIT training program. These skills should be mastered first on the apparatus floor with good visibility, then under progressively more challenging and realistic conditions until they are second nature, because proficiency in dragging an unconscious firefighter across the smooth concrete of the apparatus floor is far different from dragging them across carpet. Keeping the rescue as simple as possible and modifying your operations based on the victim, fire and building conditions present will help ensure success.

Training: Just as a professional athlete won’t make the all-star team if all they do is watch film, successful RIT operations require far more than watching some videos and training on the apparatus floor or in a training tower. The ability of any firefighter to perform RIT tasks on the fireground is dependent on them having been challenged during training. If an acquired structure can be obtained for RIT training, it will be far more realistic and challenging for your members.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of training in an acquired structure is the use of full-speed, real-time scenarios. Different challenges, such as collapses, don’t have to be simulated as they would in a training building but can rather be safely created with chainsaws and pike poles, forcing crews to adapt and overcome the obstacles they face. While such challenges can be simulated in training buildings, the benefit of the acquired structure is that they can be constantly changed. Additional ceilings can be pulled or doors screwed shut, forcing the RIT to breach a wall to access or evacuate the downed firefighter. Drills like these will undoubtedly test your personnel and provide a realistic evaluation of their readiness to perform RIT operations during a mayday event. 

Be “RIT Ready”

Once the RIT has been established and size-up performed, the RIT officer should announce over the radio “RIT 360 Complete, RIT Ready.” This simple radio transmission notifies all personnel on the fireground that RIT is in place and dealing with any external issues, such as window bars, plywood or egress ladders. However, becoming truly “RIT Ready” is more than just radio benchmarks. It takes a combination of frequent and realistic training, flexibility, trust in your firefighters, and speed to provide the greatest chance for a successful resolution of a mayday. By updating their procedures and training, all fire departments can use the lessons learned from past tragedies to give the mayday firefighters the best chance at returning home to their family.

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