Maydays Should Not Be "Mother-May-I?" Games

Nov. 1, 2007

"M other-May-I?" is a children's game that some of you might have played in your younger days. One child plays the "mother" role and the other children stand on the other side of the room, asking for permission from the "mother" to make certain physical moves, such as five steps forward, three steps backward, etc.

Unfortunately, I recently learned of a story about a firefighter who called a Mayday and whose attempts to call any future Maydays has almost turned into the game of "Mother-May-I?" The department and the individuals involved will remain anonymous. The story centers on two firefighters who were searching the second floor of an apartment building during a well-involved fire.

As they moved through one apartment, the room they were in flashed over. One firefighter bailed one way and the other firefighter bailed another way. Both got out of the room into areas that were safe, but each thought the other was still in the room. Immediately, one of the firefighters called a Mayday on his radio, since he had become separated from his partner and he thought his partner was still in the room that had flashed over.

Now, every incident commander's worst nightmare is to hear a Mayday declared. All that has been focused in mitigation of the fire now turns toward saving the firefighter. Fortunately, the happy ending of this story was that both firefighters were safe and the Mayday eventually was canceled.

A week later, a critique of the fire was conducted by the chief officers and many of the firefighters who were on the scene. One issue put on the table was that a Mayday was called that really did not turn out to be a Mayday. For nearly an hour, the firefighter who had called the Mayday was chided and taken to task for calling a Mayday that proved to be unnecessary. The criticism mainly came from some of the chief officers who were present in the room. After an hour of scolding, the message to the firefighter was loud and clear: Never call a Mayday again!

How sad that we sometimes play "Mother-May-I?" with firefighters' lives!

Not wanting retribution or to look like a "wimp" is why some firefighters have said they waited, hesitated or never did call a Mayday when they were in trouble. With over 100 firefighters a year dying in the line of duty, is part of our culture to blame? The answer is a definite yes! This has been repeated many times before in this column.

Firefighters should not hesitate to call Maydays — and we certainly should not be admonishing firefighters for doing so. Just to get the ball rolling to rescue a firefighter can be time consuming. Several years ago, the Phoenix Fire Department and Arizona State University conducted a study to see how long it took to rescue a firefighter who called a Mayday. The study showed that it took an average of 13 firefighters 18 minutes to find and rescue a downed firefighter in a commercial building. Earlier this year, it took 27 minutes for members of the Houston Fire Department to locate a fire captain who called a Mayday in a multi-story. The rescue of a firefighter in trouble must begin as quickly as possible, since any delay is going to put the rescue even further down the time line.

Pride and ego must be set aside anytime firefighters find themselves in trouble. It is bad enough that we have firefighters who may delay calling a Mayday, let alone when they fear they will be chastised for doing so. We got them going in the right direction and doing the right thing, but now are we going to slam the brakes by reprimanding them for calling a Mayday? This makes no sense!

One way of getting around this and to start encouraging firefighters to call a Mayday when they are in trouble is to have Mayday drills and practice the rescue operation. Practicing Maydays should be routine in departments so that when a firefighter gets in trouble, calling a Mayday and activating a personal alert safety system (PASS) device becomes as routine as any other firefighting procedure.

I know that not all firefighter line-of-duty deaths occur on the fireground. Heart attacks, apparatus accidents and other non-fireground events certainly take their toll. However, a significant number of firefighter deaths come about during battle on the fireground each year.

That's why we should never discourage firefighters from calling a Mayday. Let's get rid of this "Mother-May-I?" mentality when it comes to firefighters' lives.

GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire-rescue service experience. Ludwig is chairman of the EMS Section for the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master's degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally, and can be reached through his website at

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