Communication and Maydays

Indianapolis firefighters at the scene of an apartment fire.
Photo courtesy the Indianapolis Fire Department
FDIC PREVIEW

Communication is an essential part of life. This is especially true in the fire service and even more important during a Mayday situation. In today’s world, communication could be in the form of e-mails, text messages, and Facebook—none of which would work well during a Mayday event. Therefore, we will rely on the verbal form of communication (quickly becoming a lost art) in calling a Mayday.

Project Mayday has been investigating Maydays reported to us for the past six years: 9,052 career and 4,131 volunteer Maydays. We have audio dispatch recordings for 99.6% of these Maydays. There is a lot to learn from the recordings, such as how, why, where, and when we communicate our Maydays. Let’s review basic communication and other issues including the role of leadership, standard operating procedures (SOPs), training, and communication skills.

The Role of Leadership

The role of leadership in communication is critical but not necessarily in the way you think. You probably don’t hear the chief on the radio every day, in most cases; however, his role is critical in other areas when we talk about communication—first and foremost, when we start a process of purchasing or upgrading a new communication system.

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It is most important that a committee is formed involving communications, technical personnel, dispatchers, incident commanders (ICs), and—the most important stakeholder—the end user (the firefighter). All too often, when problems develop down the road, it is because someone wasn’t included in the process, and that person becomes the loudest voice in the room.

The simplest question is, “What do we what this system to do?” Sometimes, we are piggybacking onto someone else’s system and they remind us. We need to remind them our people are important as well. All too often, money becomes an issue in these decisions. We shortchange ourselves and don’t get what we really need, and later down the line we then have to fix it, even if it costs more money and time. Let’s do it right the first time.

The Role of SOPs

The foundation of a good fire department is having well-written SOPs. One of the things Project Mayday has done from the beginning is request copies of SOPs, especially in the areas of accountability, communicating a Mayday, response to the Mayday, rapid intervention team (RIT) operations, and terminating a Mayday response. We have found that many fire departments (37%) do not review or update their SOPs at least every three years. What’s most alarming is that we don’t enforce our operational SOPs like we do our duty uniform requirements. This is especially true when we talk about our radio procedures during a Mayday. Most of the time, this not a one-time occurrence but a repeated problem that usually only becomes worse.

The Role of Training

Training is the key to successful communication. It all starts with recruit training. Communication skills must start early in recruit training. If possible, each recruit (or table of recruits) should be issued a radio. Recruits should ask their questions of their instructor using a radio and following department radio procedures. This can help them get more comfortable in using radio and communication procedures. Later in their training, record their radio traffic and play it back so they can have an idea what they sound like. This should also be done when you conduct their Mayday training.

When conducting critiques of Maydays, it is important to play the audio radio traffic of the event and have it time stamped. This gives the players a chance to hear the radio traffic without the stress and allows discussion. Then, make sure the entire department and any other departments that participated get the information gathered during the critique. Again, review Mayday SOPs to see if changes are needed in SOPs or training.

Another communication issue that directly deals with Maydays is to better prepare our company officers (COs) in commanding a Mayday, because 22% of Maydays occur before the arrival of a chief officer. When you listen to the radio traffic, it is obvious the COs have not been prepared to deal with a Mayday at a command level; that includes limited resources and critical decision making. Throw in the time factor, and you can hear the stress in their voices and their frustration in getting critical tasks done without an initial RIT.

It is also important when conducting Mayday training that battalion chiefs are in charge of the Mayday response and operation. This gives them a chance to run a Mayday, communicate with their crews, and reinforce SOPs. It provides a framework for dealing with a Mayday and its communication issues.

Communication Issues
Unclear Communication

After listening to more than 9,000 Maydays, many two and three times, we see that clear communication is important; however, in about 30% of these Maydays, there is fast talking and loud (almost yelling) communication by the victims, other firefighters, and the IC. Add background noise, and the rescue of the Mayday victim by other crews or the RIT can be compromised.

There is one group that does communication right, especially Maydays, and that is air traffic controllers. They are well-trained in both communication and handling stress. There are two things they do to enhance clear communication: enunciate and clarify. I have been a fan for a long time. For example, it’s runway 2-3, not 23; it’s runway 1-9 right, not 19 right. We should follow this example: Engine 2-3 and Truck 1-9, not Engine 23 and Truck 19—and no codes. Repeating communication as a confirmation it was received correctly is a best practice.

Missed Maydays

The worst thing that can occur during a Mayday is pushing the portable radio talk button, calling a Mayday, and getting NO reply. Maydays were missed on their first call 35.6% of the time. As a victim, you ask yourself: What am I going to do—push the orange emergency button, turn on the personal alert safety system (PASS) unit, and pray?

What we have learned over the past six years is that there are two major ways Mayday communications are missed. We will address one in this article: hearing. When you get older, a lot of things happen to your body and mind. One of the things is hearing. Hearing is critical in firefighting, not just for COs and ICs but for firefighters also—and not just radio traffic but general communication. It’s everyday firefighting—the sounds we hear in darkness, from the fire, and from structural members. We use our hearing to collect intelligence, especially through situational awareness when visibility is zero. One of the Project Mayday professional advisors is an audiologist, Dr. Linda McNeil; she has done a lot of work for us over the past 2½ years, conducting interviews with Mayday victims, COs, ICs, chief officers, risk managers, Americans with Disabilities Act officials, and fire department physicians. Some of the things she has learned we will pass on here.

There is the question: Are you hearing or listening to the radio? Do you think there is a difference between hearing and listening? (Ask your spouse. On second though, don’t). If you said yes, then you are right; there is a difference. Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound by ear. If your hearing is impaired, hearing just simply happens, sometime with assistance. Listening, however, is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes meaning from words and sentences. Listening leads to learning and action.

Occupational hearing testing is important; it should be done annually. It will establish patterns of hearing because of our exposure to loud positive pressure fans, air compressors, fire pumps, and more. Over time, this exposure will damage our hearing, and our ability to hear during the worst of times—a Mayday—is critical. But, most hearing tests are done in a sterile environment, like a sound booth. McNeil and five other audiologists helped us put together a hearing test that involved fireground sounds at different levels for 4½ minutes. We tested 136 firefighters, officers, and ICs from several fire departments, of different ages and hearing levels. Then we added a radio traffic soundtrack, using apparatus numbers, orders, reports, benchmarks, low-air alarms, and calling a Mayday. The results showed that our ability to hear (clearly) and process and respond was significantly affected by our hearing levels.

This brings us to another problem: the use of hearing aids. In Project Mayday, data showed there were burns on and in the ear, with reports from both career and volunteer, the largest number coming from volunteers.

Fireground Operations Communication

Another major communication issue is that the fireground cannot always allow for the clear, timely, and most accurate communications, especially during a Mayday. Let’s look at different groups during the Mayday.

Firefighters

Pre-Mayday: When possible, all firefighters working in the hazard zone should have a radio—on the right channel, with the volume properly set, and with the remote mic in the proper position with the cord protected by the coat. They should always be listening to the radio for interior reports and exterior changes (that may prevent a Mayday) or passing on the fact they heard a Mayday and the message.

Mayday victim: Mayday victims face two challenges: (1) limited air supply and (2) flame or significant heat impingement. Don’t wait to call a Mayday; if you think you’re having a Mayday, you are! Call the Mayday; it can be canceled. Always follow your department SOP. Make sure your portable radio or remote mic antenna is in the vertical position and can present the best signal. Use whatever procedures that have been developed by the department (LIPS, LUNAR, GRAB LIVES); if you can’t remember, give your unit, name, type of Mayday, location, and remaining air [it may be easier to give the color of light on your heads-up display, then later giving an update with the actual pounds per square inch (psi)]. Remember, when you do this, muffle or turn off your PASS unit. When we listen to the radio traffic audio, it is sometimes nearly impossible to understand because of the PASS unit going off and the victim yelling to be heard, which never works well.

Company Officers

COs have many responsibilities during a structure fire, especially during a Mayday. One of the most important is critically listening to the radio in tough operating conditions. The COs must maintain control and contact with the crews, and the crews need to maintain accountability with the COs. In many cases, the COs will not have their normal crew; it could be someone on overtime, a fill-in, or trade time. Maybe they have never met before. That means you need to learn a lot quickly.

The COs need to identify working distances and the crew’s air supply. They need to report benchmarks (i.e., “All clear, under control, loss stopped”). When one of their crew members has a Mayday, they need to monitor their report and make sure it was heard and that the information repeated by the IC is accurate. The COs need to know the lowest air supply; what color the light is on the heads-up display; and, if in the RED, what the psi is.

Another issue is that when crew members have low alarms that start to go off, it really interferes with communication and often causes problems for the RIT trying to locate the Mayday victim. The COs must control and communicate with their crew; it is their crew member who is the Mayday, and they will do whatever it takes to assist or make the rescue. It’s the COs’ responsibility to make sure we don’t create more Mayday victims.

When the Mayday is over, the COs need to assess their crew members’ physical and mental status. Nobody knows their crews better than the COs; talk to them, then let the supervisor know if anybody needs help, needs to be sent home, or can return to work.

Incident Commander

ICs have a lot of responsibilities: forecasting the event, determining if they have the resources required, and establishing tactical objectives and assignments. They must communicate overall offensive or defensive strategy, which will be driven by exterior and interior conditions. Radio reports will determine resource needs. Use a tactical worksheet to track resources and the event. A good tactical worksheet should also have a section for Maydays. Mayday SOPs should also have benchmarks (RIT formed, RIT activated, located Mayday victim, removing victim, out of the building—with each time stamped). It’s important that ICs speak with a clear and controlled well-timed radio voice and mitigate unnecessary communications. ICs need timely progress reports; if they don’t have them, they need to ask for them. ICs need to make sure accountability is in place and working. They always need to be prepared for a Mayday.

Why is it that 35.6% of the time the victim’s first Mayday call is missed? Most often, the IC is outside walking around using a 5-watt portable radio, talking to another 5-watt portable radio, not the most desired means for good communication. And 26% of the time, the first call is missed when ICs are working out of the back of a vehicle, still using a portable 5-watt radio. If the ICs are inside a vehicle, Maydays are missed less than 5.2% of the time; if ICs are using a headset, Maydays are missed less than 1.8% of the time. The question has always been, “Should headsets cover one or two ears?” One allows the ICs to still hear other communications, and two will allow for better focus. The real answer is up to individual ICs: Wear them, test them, and see what works best and provides the best communication (especially listening). Remember, we all have different levels of hearing; don’t go cheap on the headsets.

Make sure a RIT is formed, ready, and in the proper position. The RIT should still maintain its initial apparatus designation; this lessens radio confusion. The RIT officer should conduct a 360° walk-around while the rest of the team checks out the rest of the equipment.

When a Mayday is called, the IC needs to establish who’s involved, the location, the type of Mayday, and the remaining air supply. Make it simple.

Often, SOPs dictate the Mayday follow-up. If the victim is disoriented, is injured, or panics, these reports may not be given in order or as planned. Therefore, the IC needs to remain calm; what you say and how you say it over the radio can make things better or worse. The IC needs to follow SOPs, fireground radio silence, and Mayday tones—no personnel accountability reports until the Mayday victim is located or removed.

Once the first RIT is activated, the IC needs to establish a second RIT and, at the same time, review the type of Mayday and its location. The IC needs to make sure there are medical teams standing by for each Mayday victim.

Once the victim has been removed and is being treated, you can terminate the Mayday. This should be repeated by dispatch. The IC needs to determine the new strategy for the event and make sure everyone is on the same page. Firefighters will lose interest in a structure that nearly took one of their own. Then make sure everyone is briefed about the Mayday, the rescue, and the known medical condition. Then ask COs to talk with their crews and monitor their behavior.

RIT

The most important crew on the fireground is the RIT standing by in case of a Mayday. Yet, all too often, they are not ready to do the job. Their poor attitude and lack of preparedness and planning put the victim in jeopardy and their crew at risk. Often, you can observe these traits in training. We have learned that 1 out of every 10 RITs has its own Mayday. The RIT also uses 23% more air than a normal crew. The RIT team leader needs to do a 360° walk-around of the structure because the RIT is going in several minutes after it was initially done or it maybe was not done at all by the first-arriving apparatus. The remaining members of the crew need to check out the RIT equipment and bag. During this time, everyone should be listening to the radio. There must be a plan, and everyone should have a job—one member working the air issue, others packaging the victim if required, and so on. The CO should monitor the surroundings, fire behavior, structural stability, and radio reports from other crews.

Once the Mayday occurs and the IC sends in the RIT, know where the victim is and what the problem is. Find the closest door (especially in commercial structures). Things change, so be prepared. If the RIT needs help, ask for it early; it will take time for the next RIT to gather equipment and make entry. RIT Mayday operations should have benchmarks to give the IC, showing the progress. Crews outside need to give room for the RIT to exit, and the victim should be passed onto waiting medical personnel, regardless of what the victim says.

Dispatchers

Dispatchers play a critical role in a Mayday, especially if it is missed on the first call. Once a Mayday is called, a dispatcher should be assigned to the Mayday, if possible, until it has been cleared or completed. Dispatchers should be involved in Mayday training. If possible, have them on the training site to witness what goes on and why. Dispatchers need a checklist on what to do and when to do it.

Communication Clues

I used to meet regularly with the late Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. We talked shop and I would play several Mayday radio traffic files. We discussed what we had heard. He said that there is something in the communications that should give us a clue. He was right! About 2½ years ago, I gathered 20 people and we listened to nearly 4,500 radio traffic files and score carded what was said and when. As a result, we developed what we call communication clues, things said that should have prepared us for a Mayday. If you hear one of these clues, start listening to the radio. If you hear a second clue, review what’s going, what the tactical objectives are, and what strategy you are employing, because the third clue you may hear is “MAYDAY–MAYDAY–MAYDAY!”

Here are common communication clues and their percentage of occurrence (as of December 31, 2020):

1. We have fire above our heads. (86%)

2. We have prolonged zero-visibility conditions. (78%)

3. We are running low, are out of air, or have an SCBA problem. (73%)

4. We have not found the seat of the fire. (66%)

5. We have fire below us. (56%)

6. We have a hole in the floor/floor collapse. (56%)

7. We have a hoarder house. (54%)

8. We have just had a flashover. (54%)

9. We have a lot of sprinklers going off in here. (49%)

10. It’s getting hot in here; we are backing out. (41%)

11. We have had a collapse (roof, floor, structure). (39%)

12. We are sending out a firefighter with a problem. (37%)

13. We have run out of hose; extend our line. (31%)

14. We have lost multiple windows. (27%)

15. We have a blocked exit. (16%)

Author’s note: Project Mayday would like to thank all the departments that have participated, along with the Mayday victims, their company officers, RITs, incident commanders, safety officers, training personnel, and chiefs.


DONALD ABBOTT is retired from the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, where he developed and managed the Command Training Center for eight years. For the past four years, he has been coordinator of Project Mayday, for which he has traveled the country presenting the “Abbottville” training simulator diorama to train emergency responders in emergency incidents and disasters. Abbott is also retired from a career fire department in Marion County, Indiana, after 24 years of service.

Donald Abbott will present “Project Mayday 2021” at FDIC International 2021 in Indianapolis on Friday, August 6, 8:30 a.m.-10:15 a.m.

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