Safety Week 2011: Preventing the Mayday

June 21, 2011
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.

"It's like a deer in the headlights," he said. "They knew they had to get out of there, but they were unable to move." He said this condition is similar to, but far worse than tunnel vision, as it can completely shut a person down. Fires and gravity have laws of physics they predicably follow, Gasaway points out. However, firefighters and commanders who have become overloaded with sensory stimulus often fail to see the signs of pending doom -- evidence that a Mayday situation is brewing.

Fortunately, there are exercises and lessons to help commanders manage the high level of stimulus and keep a focus on situational awareness, but they have to be learned and practiced.

"You have to be prepared in advance," he said. "It's just like driving. You have to practice. You don't just jump on the highway and go 60."

Three steps to maintaining control and situational awareness

He recommends that commanders and firefighters recognize the conditions they are in. Then, those on the fire scene should step back "like an out-of-body experience," he said, to get an overview of the scene and the situation.

Gasaway said that's the first step of three in maintaining control and the all important situational awareness.

He recommends commanders write three little reminders to themselves on a clipboard at fire scenes to prevent mental lock up - or have them on a card in their pocket, or taped into their helmets.

First is keeping aware of the “clues and cues,” like changes in smoke conditions, water supply situations, collapse dangers, exposure, etc.

Next is “comprehension” of those signs, and then “projecting” into, or predicting the future based on the available information, Gasaway said.

One way to do that is to reverse project, Gasaway said. "Take a look at what's happened in the 15 minutes prior to your arrival," he said. "Mom was in the kitchen cooking dinner and the kids were downstairs watching Elmo and now the house is on fire."

He likened it to trying jump on a moving train; you have to know how fast it's moving if you want to time your move right.

A constant cycle of reviewing those three items - clues and cues, comprehension, and predicting - will help commanders keep control of incidents and help prevent Maydays, Gasaway said.

Preparing for the predictable and the unpredictable

While his mantra is preventing Maydays, he knows that there are circumstances that can't be prevented. However, the excuse of rapidly changing fire conditions isn't one of them. "If people had been situationally aware, they would have seen the clues and cues and where they were headed," he said, noting that fire behavior and physics of gravity follow laws and are generally predictable to those paying attention.

Unpredictable things can happen in life, Gasaway said, noting that an engine falling off a DC-9 plane and landing somewhere is unpredictable, as is the disabled plane that killed an unfortunate South Carolina jogger as it came in for an emergency landing.

That's why it's important to be prepared for Maydays even while trying to avoid them at all cost. A well-trained, well-equipped Rapid Intervention Crew is vital to keeping firefighters safe, he said.

However, Gasaway hopes his teachings will keep RICs from ever being deployed, especially for situations that could be predicted.

Gasaway said he knows he's got an uphill battle teaching human behavior and brain science to the fire service.

"There was a time that I would have rather stuck a pen in my eyeball than sit in a classroom all day listening to brain science," Gasaway admits. However, his experience with Mayday conditions changed that and he decided to learn more and share his knowledge.

In classes he has taught, firefighters and commanders have said they learned things they never heard in Level I or II firefighting courses or in their incident commander class.

Gasaway said there's a "culture of ego" and a determination to "slay the dragon" no matter the size or force that makes it difficult for people to teach vital information about human behavior that can save lives. However, he's determined to get his message out to all who will listen.

"It's a strong message and I've got a lot of work to do, but if we want to stop killing firefighters, we've got to do more to get the word out," he said.

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