"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!" OK, Now What?

May 1, 2004
Before we go to this month?s Close Call case study, I want to throw a few thoughts on the table regarding firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Several readers recently e-mailed, ?Does it seem like there are more and more of them?? Yes, to me it does, although, there may be some changes on the horizon. So often when firefighters lose their lives, the discussion among firefighters centers on ?How did it happen?? or ?Why did it happen?? Of course, over time, the experts will help put it all together so we can learn from it. Sometimes, what happened is not as simple as it may appear.

As many of you may have read, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation hosted the first Firefighter Line-of-Duty-Death Summit in Tampa, FL, in March. By this printing, you will know what was discussed at the event, which will soon lead to specific goals and objectives. It will be a roadmap in the plan to impact our job, resulting in a drastic reduction in line-of-duty deaths. There will be some ?dead serious? recommendations that, it is hoped, will be taken seriously and applied by every single fire service organization with one common ?agreeable? focus: their members.

This is the first time in our history that nearly every national fire service organization (as well as the trade publications and some manufacturers) was invited, and nearly 100% attended and participated on clearly equal ground.

Time will tell, but why would any fire service organization not plan to adopt the forthcoming recommendations? After all, they will directly and very positively impact their own specific membership. As an old friend used to say, ?What?s not to like??

It is very easy to look at any firefighter line-of-duty death and ask, very sadly and seriously, ?Why did they do that?? or ?Why did she do this?? or ?Why didn?t he do that?? Why is it very easy? Because it is simple conversation, and simple conversation is usually just that ? easy, emotional and simple, without much substance or resulting change. The real challenge is to make the ?dead serious? changes, if we want to (as one reader wrote) make ?it? stop. But talk is cheap.

Of course, we must spend time mourning those who have lost their lives doing what we do. But, in many, many cases, it ends there. That?s why we see so many of ?the same? line-of-duty deaths happening again and again. With the ?national? effort that is now in its beginning stages, our need for mourning can very realistically become less. With the potential for one common, ?bipartisan? focus seriously impacting firefighter injury and death reduction, our prevention can become more.

It?s going to take major work to get this done, but I don?t think we?ve ever been closer. In the meantime, here are 12 very basic and random thoughts that can be done to immediately reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths:

2. Don?t back up the apparatus without a backer. Ever.

3. Treat all roadway incidents with an attitude that ?some motorist is going to run us over.? Block or shut down the roadway to insure a safe operating zone.

4. If you wouldn?t let your child breathe the air, don?t you breathe the air. Use your mask.

5. Don?t stray from your crew or a line. Officers, don?t let your crew stray from you.

6. Find out now where your radios work ? and don?t work ? before you find out at a fire.

7. If a fire has been burning below the wood floor, don?t walk on it.

8. Treat ?accountability? as if you will be accountable if a firefighter is lost.

9. If you have ?lunatic? drivers in your fire department, don?t let them drive.

10. If you know members have been drinking or doping, do whatever it takes to not allow their response.

11. Officers, enforce the standard operating guidelines (SOGs) without worrying if your firefighters ?will like you.?

12. It?s incident command, not ?incident do whatever you want.? Strictly train and drill regularly to command every incident with full focus on members returning home safely.

Of course, you can think of many more. But those are a good start.

This account is provided by a reader. Chief Goldfeder?s comments follow.

It was 11:41 on a January night. Our fire department responded to the report of a house fire in a building under construction. Police officers had been patrolling the neighborhood on a report of a smell of smoke for approximately 10 minutes prior to a neighbor?s 911 call confirming a fire.

Our units responded, including an engine with three personnel, a truck with three personnel and an ambulance with one person. In addition, a still alarm (a full structural response) was called out the door (of the firehouse) by the responding captain. That included an additional engine, two trucks, an ambulance, an incident safety officer, a rapid intervention team officer and a chief officer. This timely still- alarm request proved invaluable later.

Upon arrival, the shift captain reported sectors A and B were clear, but there was fire in a protrusion of the D sector of the home, including some exterior fire in that sector at the roof line. The captain ordered the crews to switch to fireground ?red? channel. The truck took the front of the building and assumed command and accountability.

The engine crew took a 13?4-inch pre-connected line to the A/D corner, where a door led into a library. From the doorway the crew was able to knock almost 90% of the fire. In the meantime, a 21?2-inch line was connected and the crew switched lines, then began to enter the library to continue suppression efforts.

At this point, the first mutual aid company, a truck, arrived on the scene and was assigned to a second line to work fire at the roof line. A box alarm was requested per command. The crews had been on the scene for about 10 minutes.

What occurred next is every fire chief?s nightmare. One interior crew consisting of two firefighters had made entry with the 21?2-inch line. The firefighters were approximately 25 feet into the library when the lead firefighter fell through a hole in the floor. At the time he went through the floor, both he and his partner were attempting to pull more line into the building. The firefighters were only three to five feet apart.

When the lead firefighter went through the hole, he fell 10 to 12 feet and landed on his hands and knees. Fire was evident at the ceiling line to his right, but had no direct contact with him. His partner did not initially know what had happened. However, the first thing the downed firefighter did was tell his partner to hold his position exactly where he was, as there was a hole. He then radioed a Mayday call. The fallen firefighter communicated that he was capable of assisting in his own rescue and that there was fire at the basement ceiling, but not in direct contact with him at that time.

The firefighter?s partner, due to the short distance they were into the structure, crawled back to the door to insure that the captain had heard the Mayday call, which had been acknowledged by the shift lieutenant. The shift lieutenant relayed this information to the captain. An exterior hoseline was used to protect the downed firefighter. At this time, the deputy chief arrived on the scene and had all companies, except the rescue companies, switch to fireground ?white? for operational communications.

As the mutual aid crew came up the front walk to take their assignment as the second line, they were immediately reassigned to rapid intervention along with the remaining first-due crews. A 20-foot roof ladder was taken into the structure and the plan was to get it into the hole as quickly as possible so the downed firefighter could self rescue. At the same time, the shift lieutenant was in search of another entrance to the basement from the exterior.

The visibility in the library at this point was zero and the fire was growing and threatened to cut off the access hole from below. The partner used voice contact to direct the rapid intervention team?s effort to place a ladder in the hole. The first two attempts failed because the ladder hit debris or overshot the firefighter. He too was struggling with limited visibility and his low-air alarm was activating.

Finally, the ladder was placed through the hole. The firefighter saw it go over his head and grabbed it. His first attempt to ascend the ladder was met with great heat and fire and he had to retreat while the area was cooled. A second attempt met with the same frustration. Finally, the third attempt was successful. As the firefighter came through the hole, he was grabbed by the both crews and pulled from the building, where he was handed off to a mutual aid ambulance company.

The deputy chief called for a personnel accountability report (PAR) at that time and was able to confirm that all companies were out of the building and accounted for. The time from the Mayday call to the confirmation of the PAR was six minutes!

Shortly thereafter, a collapse of the floor in that A/D sector occurred, followed by heavy fire in the A/B sector in the basement. The first floor continued to collapse in other areas, leading to a defensive attack. Suppression crews continued on the ?white? fireground frequency, per my order, due to concern over switching the multiple companies a second time. It was determined that if another Mayday was transmitted, we would turn fire operations back to ?red? fireground and keep rescue on ?white? fireground.

Unfortunately, we have all read of Mayday situations in which the outcomes were severe injuries or in many cases fatalities. In this situation, the outcome was limited to some bumps and bruises to the downed firefighter. I believe the fortunate outcome can be attributed to some definite factors.

First and foremost was training. I trust that most departments train like we do on rapid intervention teams, self-rescue and emergency scene communications. Our training officer reviews our procedures on a regular basis along with conducting practical evolutions in training homes.

Additionally, we are fortunate that in our mutual aid system, rapid intervention team procedures, along with self-rescue techniques, are constantly reviewed and refined by our training and safety officers to better prepare our personnel for such situations. In fact, just a month earlier, rapid intervention team training was conducted in a commercial occupancy for our mutual aid system as a result of the loss of a firefighter suffered by the Phoenix Fire Department.

I also credit the mutual aid truck company and my remaining crew for their quick and decisive tactics. There was no panic, just action, as evidenced by the time it took to retrieve our downed firefighter. Both crews operated as one with the common goal to save their fellow firefighter. Without the composure exhibited by both the downed firefighter and his partner, this incident could have had a very different outcome. For just a moment, place yourself in the downed firefighter?s situation ? on a fire you think you have well under control, with no warning you plunge into a basement that is involved in fire:

  • Would your first thought be to prevent your partner from falling in behind you?
  • Would you then remember you needed to transmit a Mayday?
  • Would you control the very natural urge to panic and instead of remaining at the hole, stray away in hopes of finding another way out?

How many times have we heard that story of a lost firefighter continuing to move so that companies can not get a good location on the individual and ultimately run out of time? The Phoenix Fire Department graciously shared with the fire service that it was a contributing factor in that tragic loss. If our downed firefighter had left the hole, what would have happened, given his depleting air supply, the potential fire growth and our time-consuming challenge to find an exterior entrance to the basement?

How about his partner? One minute, you are in voice contact with your fellow firefighter, proud of your knockdown of this fire and the next thing you know he is gone, telling you he has fallen through to a basement involved in fire? Would you know that receipt of his Mayday message needs to be confirmed? That you are his lifeline on a psychological as well as practical level? Only you know exactly where he went down and where he is now. You cannot afford to do anything but control your emotions.

How about the command staff on the scene, the captain, lieutenant and deputy chief? Do you think it was important that they remembered exactly what their procedures are in a Mayday situation? No time to refer to a manual, but instead you must react. Remember, there is still a fire growing and your ability to continue suppression efforts may be crucial to the survival of the downed firefighter. Their commands and the tone of those orders can promote confidence or spread despair.

If you were in the mutual aid fire department?s place, would you have been able to switch gears as effectively as they did and know what to do in a rescue situation? I will always be grateful they were there when the Mayday went down.

While our goal is always a perfect fire scene, we all know that is not usually our experience. I would mislead you and not provide some areas to ponder in your own organization if I did not point out our mistakes.

Lady luck was on our side. When the radio switch was made to fireground ?red,? only one member on the scene failed to hear that command ? the downed firefighter. Only the alert monitoring by the shift lieutenant, using the scan mode on his portable, insured that the downed firefighter was heard immediately. That message was then rebroadcast on fireground ?red.?

Because of the size of the home and the estimated depth of the basement, the 20-foot ladder was an appropriate choice. However, the room had a 14-foot boxed-beam ceiling. Along with the fact that it was not furnished, this provided room for the rescue crews to manage the ladder into the hole. In addition, building code regulations as to construction minimums allowed the rescue personnel safe haven around the rescue hole.

My lasting memory of this call will be that when I arrived, command confirmed the firefighter was out and being evaluated by the ambulance crew. I still did not know whether he was seriously injured. Once I saw him sitting in that vehicle, a little shaken, as we all would be, but none the worse for wear, I felt an incredible emotional relief and said a little prayer of thanks.

My next emotion was pride in working alongside a great group of professionals in my organization who take training very seriously. I also was proud to recognize our dedicated mutual aid crews, who take our calls and our firefighters as their own. You show what you are truly made of in the worst of times and this was certainly one of those times.

Lessons we learned and/or were reinforced that day included:

  • Homes under construction, specifically those that are almost completed, can be traps for fire personnel because a long pre-burn may lead to void fires that go undetected on initial size up. What appears to be a room-and-contents fire may be primarily structural members.

  • Escalate the level of alarm early. We needed all the people we had at the time of the Mayday transmission.

  • Switch to a fireground radio frequency as soon as possible and confirm that all companies have switched and are operating on the same frequency.

  • Never assume that a Mayday condition follows a time schedule. It can occur at the initial stages of the emergency. A review of some tragic firefighter losses found that many occur in the early stages; since the apparent magnitude of the event may not appear substantial, you can be caught off guard.

  • Perform regular training on Mayday, self-rescue, emergency communications and rapid intervention team procedures with both line and command staff.

  • During the investigation, an examination of the burn patterns revealed that although nearly all of the floor joists were consumed by the fire, those joists that survived were near the walls. Structural integrity is something to think about whenever possible if evacuating a structure to perform search and rescue or suppression where a long pre-burn may have occurred.

  • Once a Mayday is transmitted, all hands on the scene want to be involved in the rescue. Since that is a given, be prepared to institute a calculated rescue attempt bearing in mind what may have caused the Mayday in the first place. Failure to heed this warning can lead to adding victims as opposed to rescuing them.

  • Your ?360? of the building can provide valuable information. That information goes beyond fire extent and in the case of a building under construction can advise you if the building has gas or electrical service and access and egress points for rescue of civilians and firefighters alike.

  • Thermal imaging cameras are a great tool even if you believe the occupancy is empty. They provide information well beyond victim location.

We had more than one company, before their release some seven hours later, take the time to stop and ask how my firefighter was, as well as to express one common point ? they will never again take a rapid intervention team drill or assignment for granted. There is no greater assignment than to be responsible for your fellow firefighter?s well-being. We hope you never have to experience a similar situation, but if you do, we hope you are prepared.

These comments are based on Chief Goldfeder?s observations and communication with the writer and other personnel who operated at this scene:

In this particular case, things went well. We have all been at fires where things went well. Actually, almost every run you go on, things go well ? or they seem to. On the other hand, a fire department can have things ?appear? to go well 100 times and then on run number 101, things don?t go well.

Things truly go well when we intend for them to by planning ahead. In this case, this fire department had taken training very seriously well before that run came, so when ?their? run number 101 came up, they were prepared.

Being ready is really just a matter of how badly we want to be ready and prepared. Some fire departments continue to do things that ?you know? will become a problem ? ?it?s just a matter of time? ? and that?s when run number 101 is dispatched. The results can be ugly.

Some specific actions this fire department took are worthy of discussion:

  • Does your response match the tasks required? ?A still alarm (a full structural response) was called out the door (of the firehouse) by the responding captain ? This timely still-alarm request proved invaluable later.?

    In some communities, that captain would have been ridiculed or even faced disciplinary action. The old backwards attitudes of ?calling for more help only after we arrive? time and time again results in property loss and worse, injured firefighters. An applicable, heavy, ?worst-case-scenario? response can make a big difference.

    Some will argue that putting ?all that equipment on the road before you even need it? creates a hazard. To that we say, drive carefully, even respond with no lights or sirens, but at least get the resources on the road. If you arrive and the incident is small, return the other companies. However, if you arrive and have enough resources to start the essential tasks, you will be glad they arrived when they did.

  • There is a lot of discussion these days regarding good, effective and simple fireground radio communications. In this case, giving the trapped member and the rapid intervention team exclusive use of the channel makes good sense. A trapped member?s one transmission may be his or her last one. On the other hand, multiple radio channels on a fireground can lead to the lack of communications.

    Generally, radios must be simple, easy to use, and allow firefighters and the dispatcher to hear one another. Some fire departments use different channels at one specific fire for different tasks. For example, the interior search crew may be on channel ?A? and the roof crew may be on channel ?B.? While that keeps channels ?clean? and limits traffic, it also greatly reduces the chances of us hearing each other and severely clouds the ability to get a clear, overall picture by all members on the fireground. If the interior crew has a problem or sees a potential problem and advises ?command? of that ? and if all members in and near that building are on the same channel ? they all hear that message.

    Generally, all members at a specific scene should use strict radio discipline, but be able to stay on one operating channel. Of course, that also lets the incident commander listen to one channel as opposed to numerous channels ? although in this case, an officer with a ?scan? radio made a difference (at the command post, perhaps a radio should be set up to ?scan all? just in case). When a member is in trouble, he or she should have a clear radio channel, as was done very well in this fire. However, use caution before ordering those new radios that scan multiple channels and groups at a flip of a switch. All we want to do is to communicate simply, easily and clearly. If a radio is too complicated or can ?easily? be switched, we could have a problem.

    What is the answer on what will work best on your fireground? Drills and training. Make sure your radio system functions exactly the way you need it to before the fire ? and, if possible, well before you even purchase it. Take the radios into the ?toughest? areas to see what will and won?t work. A great time to do that is during building pre-plans and inspections.

    Another question is, ?Can your dispatcher hear your portable radios?? Why is that important? As several case studies have documented, the dispatcher can be that extra set of ears hearing a member in trouble. Use caution about switching to fireground channels that the dispatcher cannot monitor. Use even more caution if you have a communications center that doesn?t WANT to hear those channels ? but that?s a subject for another column. Bottom line: Do what is best for firefighter safety and survival.

  • Was building construction a factor in this fire? Of course it was, so it only makes even the critical need for regular training by all members.

  • A Mayday can occur at any time, anywhere on the fireground, so enough resources must be on the way to handle potential and predictable problems. At any incident, ask yourself, ?If something goes wrong right now, would we have enough trained firefighters and resources on the fireground to deal with it ? and the original emergency we were dispatched for?? If not, it?s time to plan before run number 101 is dispatched.

  • Clearly, there are plenty of thoughts these days on rapid intervention teams. Doing everything we can well before the fire to avoid needing a rapid intervention team is a goal that we should strive toward. However, that isn?t realistic, as things may still go wrong on the fireground. So what is the next step? Insure that your members (or other departments that respond with you) are qualified and trained to handle rapid intervention team duties, that you have plenty of them on the scene, and that they function with the clear understanding that the search, rescue and successful removal of a downed firefighter is a highly skilled task requiring highly skilled and trained firefighters.

As this month?s case study shows, whenever we hear, ?Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,? we must be able to immediately answer the call for help with actions and skills that directly impact our members? ability to survive.

Readers are asked to share their accounts of incidents in which firefighters found themselves in dangerous or life-threatening situations, with the intention of sharing the information and learning from one another to reduce injuries and deaths. These accounts, in the firefighters? own words, can help others avoid similar ?close calls.? We thank those firefighters who are willing to share their stories. We invite readers to share their experiences. We will not identify any individuals, departments or communities. Our only intention is to provide educational information and prevent future tragedies.

We thank Contributing Editor William Goldfeder for compiling these reports. You may send your reports to him at [email protected].

William Goldfeder will present ?Scared Straight on the Fireground!? at Firehouse Expo 2004 in Baltimore, July 13-18.

William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse? contributing editor, is a 31-year veteran of the fire service. He is a battalion chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982 and has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Chief Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

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