The IC’s Guide to a Mayday Response


In the past few years, my department has had the misfortune of being involved in several Mayday situations, resulting in the death of one firefighter and injuries to four firefighters. Our department is progressive and uses the incident management system, an accountability system, safety officers, rapid intervention teams (RITs), comprehensive standard operating procedures, and building preplans. However, after the last incident (involving the tragic loss of a firefighter), the department realized that more needed to be done. In a rare moment of insight, it was decided to tap our internal resources and ask our firefighters and officers to identify and address concerns that might impact operations during a firefighter-down incident. I was asked to formulate a lesson plan that would be used to reinforce our chief officers’ knowledge of what to do after a Mayday is called.

I believe that our officers are some of the best in the business, but anyone can be overwhelmed in an emergency. Giving your incident commanders (ICs) a reminder of everything that needs to be done can only help.


At what is, arguably, the most stressful situation an IC can face, remembering the following actions can ensure that critical points are not overlooked. Because so much on the fireground needs to happen simultaneously and every incident is unique, these actions are in no particular order.

1 Clear radio traffic, and attempt to confirm the Mayday. Use your dispatching center, which is usually underused, to clear the air, relay messages, clarify transmissions, and monitor the frequency. If a Mayday is heard but cannot be confirmed in a short time, you must initiate search and rescue procedures. Maintaining radio discipline is essential to avoid stepping on a critical transmission by the firefighter in trouble. Some departments are lucky enough to have more than one frequency available. If you’re one of those departments, the IC should consider switching personnel not involved in the rescue onto another frequency. Many times this is harder to do than it sounds, so using face-to-face communication and runners can reduce the amount of radio traffic during this crucial time.

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(2) Don’t be lulled into thinking Maydays happen only at big fires. Fires in these two buildings resulted in one firefighter death and three firefighter injuries. Be prepared! (Photos by Ron Jeffers.)
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2 Request additional alarms. Immediately call for additional personnel on confirmation of a Mayday. You can do this by striking another alarm, calling for mutual aid, or toning out a general alarm. Whatever method you use, doing it early minimizes the lead/reflex time—the time lag that exists between when you request help and when it finally arrives. The IC can use these additional resources to replenish the tactical reserve, assist the rescue effort, relieve operating forces already on-scene, or to continue mitigating the original incident.

3 Have the RIT report to the command post. Although a rapid response is crucial, the IC must coordinate the rescue effort to avoid freelancing on the fireground. Everyone wants to help, but it’s the IC’s job to see the big picture and to keep things organized. The RIT and its officer can confer with the IC, formulate an initial plan, and initiate the rescue effort while the IC secures additional resources and briefs incoming units.

4 Confer with the accountability officer to determine the last known location of the firefighter. Someone has to be responsible for accountability. My department uses a command technician, but it could be a chief’s aide, a safety officer, or a firefighter designated specifically for that job. Regardless of the title, that person should have a general idea of where the involved firefighter was operating. Use LUNAR as a helpful acronym to remember the information you need to gather on the trapped/missing firefighter. It stands for Last known location, Unit number, Name, Assignment, and Radio equipped. Some of this information may seem unnecessary, but an accurate account of who is missing and located can avoid confusion during the rescue effort.

5 Establish a Rescue Division, and assign a Rescue Division supervisor. Because of the possibility of a communication or discipline breakdown, it will be necessary to establish a Rescue Division. Giving it a name like “Mayday Division” helps to differentiate it from your ordinary rescue groups/sectors. Creating a separate division permits the IC to focus on the original incident while the Rescue Division supervisor (ideally a chief officer) manages the Mayday incident. In this way, the IC can maintain the span of control, and the operation will run more efficiently.

6 Initiate a personal accountability report (PAR). Perform this action after a Mayday is called and anytime conditions are such that firefighter safety may be compromised—e.g., rapid fire spread, collapse, or loss of water, for example. Here is where an IC’s common sense and experience are important. Since a PAR is time consuming, it must be timed so as not to interfere with other radio operations. Having units report in when they switch over to a second frequency kills two birds with one stone.

7 Perform an on-scene resource evaluation. The chief in charge must assess the resources at hand. The tactical reserve (units standing by awaiting deployment) may be used to assist the rescue effort. Identify the nearby apparatus, equipment, handlines, and water supply. The Rescue Division supervisor should perform a resource and needs assessment and relay the results to the IC for action.

8 Request emergency medical services (EMS) to the command post. This is a critical, but often overlooked, component of the Mayday incident, especially if your department does not run EMS. The local EMS agency should maintain a presence at the command post from the onset of the incident. EMS crews will be responsible for the care and transport of the injured firefighter. Request advanced life support on confirmation of a Mayday, if it has not already been done.

9 Request additional RITs. Once the initial RIT is deployed, the members operating at the original incident still need protection. Consider multiple RITs if the incident area is large, the structure is unsound, or other conditions warrant. Additional safety officers, both for the Rescue Division and the original incident, should respond.

10 Redeploy on-scene resources as appropriate. A three-member RIT will not be able to locate, access, extricate, and remove a trapped firefighter. There will be a delay from the time additional units are called until the time they arrive and are ready to operate. A proactive IC will use the tactical reserve units, companies in rehab, and members performing noncritical functions to assist the rescue effort until fresh companies can be mustered.

11 Continually monitor building stability and fire conditions. Whatever conditions contributed to the initial Mayday must still be addressed. Secondary collapse may be a threat. Members tend to gravitate to the rescue area; in doing so, they may permit the fire conditions to worsen in the area they left. Company officers must maintain unit discipline and remain at their assigned tasks until the tasks are completed or the IC reassigns the unit. Personnel in exterior positions can assist by monitoring the structure for any hazards or concerns. The IC can also assign additional safety officers to this task.

As you can see, the IC must address quite a few tasks when a Mayday is called. Taking these points and making them into a checklist may be helpful. Keeping a few copies on your IC’s clipboard, in your command post vehicle, and with your accountability board ensures that they are readily available for the IC to reference, should the need arise. Nobody can be expected to remember everything off the top of his head. Having a quick checklist to refer to during a stressful incident can make things run more smoothly.


The fire service is finally addressing the issue of calling for help early in a Mayday situation. Our firefighters are encouraged to report the situation quickly and then attempt to extricate themselves. As a result, we may be seeing more Maydays, but many are resolved and canceled sooner. This means that the IC may never get to implement many of the steps presented here. That’s great, but we still have to plan for the big one and give our ICs all of the tools, training, and resources to perform their duties effectively. The points addressed, coupled with the experience of your chief officers, offer your department the best possible opportunity for a successful outcome.

TODD HOUSTON is an 11-year veteran of the fire service and is a captain with the North Hudson (NJ) Fire & Rescue, assigned to Squad 1. He is a NJ level I fire instructor and a rescue specialist with the USAR TF-NJ-1. Prior to entering the fire service, he was a New York City paramedic for six years.

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