Handling the Mayday: The Fire Dispatcher’s Crucial Role


“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.” If this message were sounded on your fireground on a dispatch or nonfireground frequency, would your fire dispatcher know how to handle it? This article explores an area in Mayday training often neglected in many departments: the communications center. Fire dispatchers need to understand what a Mayday is, the conditions under which a firefighter calls a Mayday, and the immediate actions the incident commander (IC) will take when a Mayday is called before they can see their role during the Mayday.

Mayday is an international distress signal in voice procedure radio communications. It signals a life-threatening emergency primarily by mariners and aviators; in some countries, local organizations such as police, firefighter, and transportation organizations also use the term. The call consists of the word Mayday stated three times in succession. This is done to prevent the message from being mistaken for a similar-sounding phrase under noisy environmental conditions and to distinguish it from a call about a Mayday message that had already been called.

Firefighters use the Mayday call when they are disorientated, lost, injured, out of or low on air, trapped, or whenever they have an emergency and need assistance or rescue. A Mayday message is not used for a routine message or an urgent radio transmission. It is reserved for situations that necessitate immediate attention because the firefighter’s life is in jeopardy.

Mayday messages are subject to many conditions that can negatively affect their successful transmittal and receipt. The fireground has many environmental conditions that make communicating far from ideal. Fire dispatchers must be ready to listen through and beyond those conditions to hear the information being transmitted. Fire dispatchers are like pump operators at a fire. They complete numerous tasks simultaneously in the first five to 10 minutes. Then and only then, if no other incidents or 911 calls must be attended to, can they focus on tasks, one at a time.

(1) Fire dispatchers must intently listen to all frequencies a firefighter can use to transmit a Mayday. Countless Mayday transmissions have gone unheard by the IC because of many factors on the fireground. (Photo by author.)
(1) Fire dispatchers must intently listen to all frequencies a firefighter can use to transmit a Mayday. Countless Mayday transmissions have gone unheard by the IC because of many factors on the fireground. (Photo by author.)

It’s at that point that the fire dispatcher must be intently listening to all frequencies a firefighter can use to transmit a Mayday. Countless Mayday transmissions have gone unheard by the IC because of many factors on the fireground. Only fire dispatchers are in a position to hear and make sense out of the many fireground transmissions. The dispatcher in many cases can quickly replay the audio. The IC has only one chance of hearing, understanding, and acting on each transmission.

Along with the environmental barriers to effective communication, equipment worn by the firefighter can also affect the transmission so that the IC is prevented from hearing and answering a Mayday call. A self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) can cause the transmission to be muffled and difficult to comprehend even during normal nonstressful communications. There may be radio feedback in the form of squealing. Power equipment or vehicles may drown out the firefighter’s voice. Safety equipment worn by the firefighter can also affect the quality of the transmission.


Among the fireground sounds the fire dispatcher must recognize are the following:

The personal alert safety system (PASS) device. The device is worn by firefighters when in an environment that is immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), such as a burning building. A PASS device sounds a loud audible alert to notify others in the area that the firefighter is in distress. It automatically activates if it does not detect motion for a specified time, typically 15 to 30 seconds. Consequently, the alert will sound if the firefighter is seriously injured or otherwise incapacitated. When activating because there is a lack of motion, the PASS device will typically emit a few seconds of a muted warning before full activation occurs so that a firefighter who has been motionless for a time but is otherwise safe will be able to move slightly and thus reset the activation timer before a false activation occurs. The PASS device can also be activated manually in an emergency, such as when a firefighter is lost or trapped. Are your fire dispatchers familiar with the sound of the alert given by the PASS devices used in your department?

The SCBA low-air alarm. This audible warning activates when the firefighter’s SCBA air bottle is down to 25-percent capacity. Most SCBA bottles have either 30 or 45 minutes of supplied air when full. When the low-air alarm is activated, the 30-minute tank has approximately seven minutes of air remaining and the 45-minute tank has about 11 minutes in ideal conditions. A firefighter transmitting a Mayday because the SCBA low-air alarm has activated is in a life-or-death situation. He must be rescued quickly if he is to survive. The fire dispatcher should be familiar with the sound of the low-air alarm as well as any other alarms that may sound, such as when the air supply is about to be completely depleted.


Mayday training prepares firefighters for the absolute worst-case scenario. Through repetition, they create muscle memory to help ensure that the procedures they must employ in an emergency are instinctual so they do not have to try to remember what to do. Firefighter training is a matter of life or death. Training is conducted over and over so the firefighter will be proficient in every task. This training should be carried through to the fire dispatcher.

To help firefighters provide the IC with the information needed to successfully help a firefighter in peril, we employ the acronym LUNAR (Location-Unit-Name-Air-Resources). An IC armed with this concise information will help successfully mitigate the Mayday.

Once a Mayday is transmitted, many things must take place. There are some variations; you must familiarize yourself with your department’s specific standard operating procedures, standard operating guidelines, and policies for these incidents.

However, the basic information needed is the same in all departments. Once an IC receives the Mayday, he will obtain all of the LUNAR information from the firefighter calling the Mayday, and the rapid intervention team/rapid intervention crew (RIT/RIC) will be deployed to assist the firefighter.

Some of the tasks the IC will implement (depending on the size of the department and the resources on the scene) include the following:

  • Activate the RIT/RIC on scene.
  • Order an additional alarm for fire operations to reinforce the tactical objectives.
  • Request an additional RIT/RIC.
  • Ensure that emergency medical services is at the scene.
  • Move all fire communications except the Mayday firefighter and RIT/RIC to another radio frequency.
  • Conduct a personnel accountability report (PAR) from all companies.
  • Communicate with the Mayday firefighter; ensure that he has activated his PASS device, and obtain periodic status updates from the firefighter as well as the RIT/RIC.
  • Continue to manage the tactical objectives of the incident. (We must always remember that if we can put the fire out and vent the products of combustion quickly, we will eliminate some of the deadly conditions for the Mayday firefighter and the RIT/RIC.)


Some departments have many layers of command staff at every incident to divide tasks and objectives among officers. Other departments do not have these resources and must depend on their fire dispatcher to assist them in handling the Mayday. The fire dispatcher must be prepared to talk directly with the Mayday firefighter. There have been documented incidents where a firefighter has called a Mayday on a frequency not monitored by the IC. The dispatcher, then, must be prepared to obtain the LUNAR information and direct the firefighter to activate his PASS device. The dispatcher must correctly relay the LUNAR information to the IC with 100-percent accuracy. To do this, the dispatcher must be familiar with LUNAR and have been trained in using it. The dispatcher should also have a Mayday checklist as a reminder of the Mayday-related tasks that must be attended to. The dispatcher may have to handle all communication to and from the Mayday firefighter, and he must be prepared.

Even if the IC successfully receives the Mayday message, he may need the dispatcher’s help and may rely on the dispatcher to complete some of the tasks that need to be done to manage the incident. Some of these tasks include the following:

  • Order additional alarms or mutual aid, additional RIT/RIC teams, and EMS.
  • Document Mayday information into the computer-aided dispatch program.
  • Monitor all department frequencies.
  • Ensure accuracy in the communications among the Mayday firefighter, the IC, and the RIT/RIC.
  • Document the PAR of all personnel.
  • Tend to the many other tasks involved in the position and any other potential calls for service that will continue to come into the dispatch center.

A Mayday can be a defining moment in the history of your department. The involvement of your fire dispatcher could make the difference in the outcome.

Firefighters across the country train daily in Mayday procedures. The fire dispatcher must be involved in this training as well.

Some of you might be thinking, “That will never happen here.” You may be right. For it to happen, someone may have to step up and be the agent of change.

P. J. NORWOOD is a deputy chief training officer for the East Haven (CT) Fire Department and has served four years with the Connecticut Army National Guard. He has coauthored the DVDs Tactical Perspectives of Ventilation and Handling the Mayday—The Fire Dispatcher’s Role (Fire Engineering, 2011 and 2012, respectively). He is an FDIC instructor and cohosts Fire Engineering‘s Blog Talk Radio show “Making the Turn.” He has lectured across the United States as well as in Singapore. He has also served as Connecticut’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Regional CERT coordinator. He is certified to the instructor II and officer III level.

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