Justin McCarthy: Down and Dirty Mayday

By Justin McCarthy

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! The person with whom you ate hours before is calling a Mayday with a fear like no other—thinking it is his last breath. I now ask you, are your completely confident in yourself? Will you react appropriately? Is your department prepared?

It may not seem like it on the surface, but just delve in a little: ask how ready the members in your company are. I imagine you will not find the confidence you may expect. A Mayday is that one thing, the common fear, we all have. We listen to story after story thinking, that won’t happen here or we don’t get fires here. Instead, shouldn’t we be asking, how would we deal with that?

Firefighters are experts at pushing their fears deeper and deeper, yet the more dishonest we are with ourselves, the less prepared we are. From the firefighter calling the Mayday, to the incident commander (IC) receiving it, to the members operating around the same scene, it is that surreal moment we never expect. With everything we now focus on, we all know that it is the fundamentals that are so often forgotten and that’s the area in which a simple, all-encompassing, versatile training and policy fit in so well.

Muscle Memory

As a firefighter you have a duty to yourself and to your friends and family to come home the same way in which you left. We have listened to the speakers, watched the YouTube videos, and read the articles, but what are you going to do if it is you? My first thought is muscle memory. When most people are asked to do something as routine as putting a seat belt on, they do it without thinking. This is the same muscle memory we must work on when it comes to a Mayday. In a recent training session with members of a large urban department, 75 percent of the members could not activate their personal alert safety system (PASS) alarm manually without hesitation. Member after member would initially hit the silence or reset button because that was the button they always associate with the PASS. Once simple artificial stress was introduced, the members continuously resorted back the button they always hit. That’s why we must train as we do to prevent this complacency.

Mayday Is a Tool

The next common problem we are seeing is members are waiting longer to activate a Mayday or a distress signal. The question that comes to mind is why? I have asked several people, and overwhelmingly the same responses keep coming out. “I don’t want to get my chops busted” and “I just needed a few more minutes.” My response? It is 2015! We have been all through this; yet, the same issues written in articles in the early 1990s are still coming up.  The issue I see is not why are we not calling the Mayday but why aren’t our members comfortable with calling the Mayday. Mayday is a tool in our toolbox. It is another thing in our firefighting cache that we have at our disposal to help make our jobs easier and safer.

Now that the member calling the Mayday has done his duty, it is now up to you, the IC and the members operating. We spoke above about working to better ourselves in case we need help, but when was the last time your ICs received training on reacting to the Mayday? We beat it home on drill night, LUNAR, U-CAN, LIP, but can you as an IC say with confidence “I AM READY”? The old adage is that the first five minutes of an incident set up the next five hours. I say with confidence that a Mayday is no different. Time after time, we hear audio of members giving Maydays that are missed or not acknowledged. These members are doing their part; you need to do yours. Drills and training are not just for those crawling down the hallway, and they do not stop because you have a white helmet.

Mayday Checklist

Now we all know that the job of the IC has reached the point of being ridiculous. The same person running the house fire is also responsible for the rope rescue or the extrication. Unfortunately, the one in charge at these calls must execute to near perfection on every call. As a realist, I know it is impossible to remember it all. Now, throw in a member taking what he thinks are his last breaths, and it is very easy to forget what needs to be done. Insert the “Mayday checklist.” It seems so simple, yet I can think of only one department that uses it. All you need is an easy-to-access cheat sheet for the IC to use to assist him in running a Mayday. The items are simple things like answering the Mayday, activating an additional alarm, advising all members to continue their tasks, and so on. These simple to use, simple to make cheat sheets will hopefully collect dust, but if for one minute they help facilitate a rescue, it seems as if the hour of work and $5 cost lamination were worth it.


Keep on with Your Assignment

Recently I was speaking to a class of firefighter recruit students about Mayday and asked a question. The answers surprised me. We had covered the person calling the Mayday as well as the IC’s role, but I wanted to know what the students would do if it was their friend calling the Mayday. All the time we are practicing for getting out of a situation, yet our members are still unsure of how to react. I say without hesitation, “Keep operating.” There is a misconception that if a member is calling a Mayday, we need to stop what we are doing. Some say we need to evacuate, and some say we need to try to find our brother or sister. Do nothing of the sort. When a Mayday is called, it is all the more reason to get to the seat of the fire and get it out.  This is the time for discipline overkill. When an IC receives a Mayday, his mind will go into overload, and when he begins to put it all together, the pieces will lead the IC to believe you are where you were last assigned. The moment that a member breaks free of his task to begin to work on the rapid intervention team he has created a monster that is out of control. This does not mean being tuned out, however. Monitoring the radio, listening for members, or paying attention to a PASS alarm are as vital as always. The key to the positive outcome is that everyone stay focused, stay on task, listen, and follow directions.

Call after call, members are able to separate themselves from the incident. Today’s firefighters are seeing the horrific on a regular basis and are able to shut it off. A Mayday does not afford the same luxury. We know the person on the other end of the radio, we see him every day, we know his family, and now we hear him struggle as he breathes what he thinks may be his last breath. It is every member’s responsibility to ensure he is prepared for himself as well as for his colleagues.


Justin McCarthy is a firefighter in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a fire instructor for the Wolcott Regional Fire School. He holds a B.S. degree in fire science and has co-written Fire Engineering “Tactical Perspective” DVDs with Frank Ricci. He is a past FDIC presenter and co-hosts the “PJ Norwood show” on FE Blog Talk Radio monthly.