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Let's Talk Fire: Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Updated on May 8, 2016


Mayday is a vital part of the fire service
Mayday is a vital part of the fire service

The Mayday

God forbid you ever have to make that game changing call and use the one word that is as scary to a firefighter as a dirty diaper is to a new parent. Mayday! A mayday call will send chills up the spines of every firefighter on scene and put any incident commander in a state of sheer panic for at least a split second. Unfortunately due in part to a lack of caring and a huge lack of training to many firefighters do not regard the mayday with the respect it really deserves and requires.

As firefighters we need to get our heads around the mayday and all it's intricate parts. We need to know not only what we can do if we have to make that call but also what we can do if someone on a scene we are involved in. We also need to understand that mayday is not a call to drop arms and surrender to the situation that led to the mayday call in the first place. Initiating a mayday simply means we need help, not that we must stop trying to help ourselves. Always remember that a mayday can be called off just as simply as it was initiated.

In this installment of Let's Talk Fire we will discuss several aspects of the mayday procedure including the parameters in which a mayday should be called, how to actually initiate the mayday over your radio, what you should do after the mayday is called whether you are making the call or you are working elsewhere on the scene when the call is made, and some simple yet effective ways to avoid having to call the mayday. Also remember that to many firefighters refuse to call mayday for reasons ranging from fear of ridicule all the way to mach attitudes. Don't let these silly factors affect your survival. Also always hope for the best but expect and prepare for the worse.


Mayday Parameters

Let me be blunt for a brief moment. Never be to macho to call for help. Don't let pride kill you in a fire! Mayday operations are there for us to stay safe and when the need arises we should utilize the resources, all of the resources available to us. As I mentioned earlier some firefighters fear ridicule for calling a mayday. If your department would do such a thing than you need to rethink if it is the right department for you. While the following parameters exist to signal moments when you need to initiate your mayday communication I want to stress that any moment you feel you need help for survival merits a mayday and you should use it if you think you need it.

The following is a list of situations that you should be ready and willing to call the mayday transmission and get the help you need to stay alive.

  1. You get lost or disoriented
  2. You are trapped, stuck, or entangled.
  3. You are low or out of air.
  4. You are injured or just exhausted.
  5. You become seperated from your crew.
  6. You have lost contact with your line.
  7. You become involved with a collapse.
  8. You fall.
  9. If your partner has any of these events happen and you witness or know of them.
  10. Your exits are cut off.
  11. Your PPE fails.

These situations will no doubt put you in serious risk of losing your life. Remember if you do manage to get yourself out of the situation simply radio in and cancel your mayday. I often put heavy focus on firefighters taking precautions to avoid having to call the mayday. Carry wirecutters to avoid entanglements, sound the floor to avoid falls, and other simple basic training factors that we should always remember to use.

Video Resource

In Trouble? Time for a moon landing!

It is vital that your department have a standard protocol for calling the mayday. Every member of the department needs to be familiar with it and practice it until it is second nature. For this text I will focus on the LUNAR technique of calling the mayday as this is the one my primary department utilizes.

Let's go ahead and break LUNAR down into it's basic components and learn how it can assist our RIT crew with locating us.

L=Location. Where do you think you are? You may not be able to give an accurate description of where you think you are but give it your best shot. Remember A.B.C, and D side descriptions. You may start your transmission with Mayday, mayday, mayday, B C corner.

U= Unit number. Accountability charts use our specific fire number. For me I may say mayday, mayday, mayday BC corner, unit 1807.

N= Name. Let them know who they are coming for. My transmission would now be. Mayday. mayday, mayday BC corner, unit number 1807 Lieutenant Sam Little.

A= Assignment. What were you doing when the need for mayday happened? Our transmission now would sound like this. Mayday, mayday, mayday BC corner, unit number 1807 Lieutenant Sam Little interior search and rescue crew 1.

R=Resources Needed. This is where we are going to get what we need to get out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into. Here is the final transmission.

Mayday, mayday, mayday BC corner, unit number 1807 Lieutenant Sam Little interior search and rescue crew 1. I am entangled in wires of some sort and unable to get free. I need a RIT crew with cutting utensils.

While the order of things may seem a bit odd they will work if done correctly. One last note of interest. Always activate your PASS device after the radio transmission.

We all need help sometimes.

Know how to get it!
Know how to get it!

Entanglements are far to common not to train for!

Preventative Measures

Sounding a floor is a great way to avoid falling through a weakened floor in a fire.
Sounding a floor is a great way to avoid falling through a weakened floor in a fire.

The crew's a comin' what now?

Again I want to place a strong focus here on training. A RIT crew is en route to help you but that does not mean you are limited to t sitting, or laying as the case might be, there and waiting. You have options and they should be explored. Remember if you can self rescue than you can always radio the incident commander and alert them to call off the RIT operations and return to a normal fire ground operation.

I am an advocate for survival and rescue training for all firefighters and have made it a solid point to never get paired with someone who has failed to complete, not witness or watch, but actively complete state mandated survival and rescue classes. We need to know how we can free ourselves from entanglements and get us to safety. Remember no one loves you quite as much as you love you!

A good mayday operation takes the entire efforts of the entire department. For one we are always going to want to drop everything and go get our brother or sister out of the danger zone but while we delay operations the fire has not decided to take a break and continues to burn and advance on the structure and in reality on our fallen firefighter. Essential operations must continue to keep the guy inside alive and well until we can get him. This also means radios must be silenced. Only use them when you have to. Keep them open for mayday transmissions ans emergency talk.

So we are in deep and we have called for help. Now we have to do one of the hardest things ever asked of us. In the face of danger and maybe even death we must remain calm. Take a deep breath and look at the situation as a bigger picture. You may be disoriented but can you recall which way you came and possibly retrace those steps that got you to this point? Maybe you are entangled. Is there a chance you can cut your way out or even use the swim technique to get those wires or ropes under you instead of around you?

Look at the situation in terms of what would be the simplest way to escape it. It sounds hard and I assure you it will most likely be as such but when you stay calm and focus the problem in terms of the steps to remedy it you will be able to start putting those bigger picture puzzle pieces together.

Maybe air is getting low. This is an issue that takes some training in techniques like skip breathing or even mental stamina. I for one like to count or sing a song in my head when I go in on air. It paces me and slows my breathing. Granted many a times on exterior operations I have been caught dancing to the tune in my own head my air is still being used at a very impressive rate. This does not mean that you may not get to that point where you are low on air. At this stage start skip breathing and make it clear in your mayday transmission you need a spare cylinder.

It is over!

God willing your mayday situation ended well and everyone made it back to the station for some fine chilli but the task is not over. Something happened, something bad that triggered that mayday transmission and in return the mayday response. Now that you are able to sit down with the entire crew you need to go over that something and start to form a plan to keep it from becoming a regular something on your scene.

FEMA and NFPA release reports every year of fire fighter fatalities that could have been avoided if simple plans of action had been carried out. Don't become a statistic and for all that is good in the world don't let one of your own become one either! Learn from the incident and build around it to make your department stronger!


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