Jim Sandas: Calling a Mayday

By Jim Sandas

How many firefighters have ever been faced with a “MAYDAY” situation on the fireground?  It is an eerie situation, nevertheless a life-changing one to say the least.

Let’s review some facts and see if they hold true.  Whenever an emergency arises at a fire scene, it usually occurs within the first 10 minutes of the alarm.  Rapid intervention teams (RIT) do not respond until the transmission of a “working fire,” determined by first-arriving units and thus a delay in response time. RIT usually has a response time of within 15 minutes–five minutes past the normal time that an emergency usually occurs on the fireground.

The United States Fire Administration (U.S.F.A.) announced a provisional total of 83 on-duty firefighter fatalities in the United States as a result of incidents that occurred in 2012, the same number of firefighter losses as in 2011. These 83 fatalities were spread across 34 states.

Here’s a question that needs to be asked while at company drills or department meetings: Why is getting a firefighter to call a “MAYDAY” such a problem?  Does the firefighter doubt himself in giving a “MAYDAY” transmission or is he embarrassed because he is afraid of what the consequences might be from peers if it was not a true emergency?  Most of the time, when firefighters transmit a “MAYDAY” they have waited too long and are in dire need of help.

What are the national standards in relation to calling a “MAYDAY” in the fire service?  No national standards exist that clarify when firefighters should call a “MAYDAY.” The way firefighters react to any situation is based on their formal training, instinct, and experience. Fire departments should have in writing a standard operating procedure (SOP) for “Mayday” transmissions. 

The National Fire Academy (NFA) has developed a two-part program pertaining to firefighter safety. The first part is “Calling a MAYDAY.” The second part deals with hands-on training in which a firefighter transmits a “MAYDAY” in various fire situations.  A certificate is issued to the firefighter on completion of the program.

When we speak of the word “MAYDAY,” it will help identify that a firefighter/fire officer has become lost, stuck, trapped, or seriously injured or has exhausted his breathing air.  Essentially the word “MAYDAY” means a firefighter is in need of immediate help.

Universal “MAYDAY” parameters were developed so firefighters can be trained with them. Four “MAYDAY” parameters were created:

•         Fall–no matter what it is through.

•         Collapse–having something collapse on you or falling into a collapse zone.

•         Lost or Trapped.

•         Stuck.

To remember what “MAYDAY” transmissions are, an acronym has been developed.  (I – O – U – MY – Miserably –Pathetic – LIFE)

•         IMMINENT Collapse

•         Collapse OCCURRED

•         UNCONSCIOUS Firefighter or Life Threatening Injury

•         Member is MISSING

•         MASK (S.C.B.A.) Emergency

•         P.S.S.(Personnel Safety System) Activation

•         A Member Becomes LOST or Trapped

Another acronym associated with a “MAYDAY” transmission is L.U.N.A.R.

L        Last Known Location?

U       Unit (Company or Dept.)            

N       Name

A       Assignment

R       Radio Equipped/PASS or what RESOURCES will be required to assist in the rescue of the firefighter needing help.

“MAYDAY” transmissions should be given early, without delay.  It is easier said than done, but given the circumstances the firefighter should stay calm while giving his transmission.  If possible, give your last known location.  Try to remember what route you took to gain entry and the path you took inside the fire building. What are the surroundings at the time of your transmission? Just this fact along maybe able to pinpoint, locate, and remove the firefighter. Last but not least, what, if any, are the fire conditions the firefighter is facing?

The FIRST step a firefighter should take when confronted with a “MAYDAY” parameter is to call the “MAYDAY.” Only then can the firefighter try to fix the situation or have others assist. Remember, a “MAYDAY” transmission can always be CANCELED if it is not needed, but if firefighters wait to call, the window of survivability can close quickly.

“Recognition Primed Decision Making” (RPD) is a model of how people make quick, effective decisions when faced with complex situations. RPD explains how firefighters make decisions on the fireground based on prior situations and experiences. RPD reveals a critical difference between experienced and newer firefighters when presented with the same life-threatening situation. Experienced firefighters will generally tend to be able to come up with quicker decisions because the situation may be one they encountered before. The newer firefighter, lacking this experience, and knowing time is of the essence, must decide, through different possibilities, a course of action that they believe will work–not necessarily the correct one. RPD is developed to show how decisions can affect important situations, which may either save lives or take lives.

If a firefighter does transmit a “MAYDAY,” the incident commander (IC) should put the following procedures into effect:

•         Confirm Report and Location

•         Establish Control of Fireground Communication Frequency

•         L.U.N.A.R.

•         Roll Call – Announce Member’s Name

•         Assign RIT

•         Transmit Additional Alarm(s)

•         Request/Confirm EMS

•         Review firefighting effort (i.e., Hoseline, Ventilation)

Last but not least, does your department drill or practice calling a “MAYDAY”? If you do, what are the specific parameters or rules for when a firefighter must call a “MAYDAY”? Remember, calling a “MAYDAY” is not giving up or failing; it addresses a situation that needs to be corrected or else a life-threatening situation may occur.


JAMES F. SANDAS is a 27-year veteran of FDNY. He previously served in Engine Company 212 and 277 and Ladder Company 112 before transferring to Rescue Company 2 in 1996, where he is currently assigned. His fire service career began 39 years ago as a member of the Hempstead (NY) Volunteer Fire Department, and he has served as the assistant chief of training since 1983. Since 2005, Jim has served as a New York State Certified Clinical Lab Instructor, Nassau County Emergency Medical Services Academy.  He has lectured at FDIC since 2009 and has been a H.O.T. instructor and contributing writer for Urban Firefighter and Fire Engineering. He has a NYS Fire Service Instructor I certificate and is a frequent instructor at the FDNY Special Operations Technical Rescue School. He has a B.A. in fire and emergency management from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.