Managing the Mayday

Several years ago, we realized that we weren’t focusing on training our personnel to save one of our own, a fellow firefighter, as much as we should have been. Fortunately, in the past couple of years, it appears that more and more fire departments across the nation have been training their firefighters in the techniques necessary to rescue firefighters.

It was during this training that we realized that we were deficient in one more area-in training our personnel in how to manage the Mayday. As we studied the incidents involving firefighter line-of-duty fatalities to identify where we might have gone wrong or were deficient in our training, we found that very little emphasis was being placed on training our personnel to manage and handle the fireground emergency itself. Once we got past identifying the contributing factors that led to the fatality-noting that the list contained everything from failure to read the building or fire properly, resulting in poor tactical decisions, to failure to adequately train our firefighters in the basics of poor fireground communications-we found that poor command and control were major factors adding to the difficulties or failure of the fireground emergency. At times, these elements were completely absent.

There is no argument that the lost or trapped firefighter situation is very difficult and extremely stressful, but like anything else we do in the fire service, we have to train for it. We also realize that firefighters will take on any challenge or task and handle it. It’s in their nature-as matter of fact, they revel in the challenge. But when we are faced with our own emergency, we also have to be prepared to handle it. The citizen calls 911 to obtain our help. Whom do we call to help us? We have to reach back and rely on our past training.

Try this exercise in your department after an incident. At the end of your critique, whether you hold it on the fireground or back in the fire station, ask yourself or the incident commander (IC) this question: If we would have had a Mayday at this incident, how would we have handled it? The Mayday could have been an announcement by an unknown firefighter or company in trouble in a particular area of the building.

What you might find out may concern you. Some people will begin to walk you through a roll call or PAR (Personnel Accountability Report). In some instances, they will have backed everyone out of the building to perform an accountability check on the front lawn, only to discover that they left the member or company in trouble behind in the burning building alone with the advancing fire. These are not bad people. They are good firefighters and officers; they just have never been trained in managing the Mayday, just as several years ago we weren’t training in firefighter rescues.

Many fire departments have a lost/trapped firefighter standard operating procedure in place, but several do not train the rapid intervention team (RIT) officer on his responsibilities or the IC in how to manage the fireground emergency. It’s like a lot of the procedures we have on paper: If we don’t train in them, they won’t work when we need them.


(1,2) Two firefighters were trapped in this collapse. (Photos by Bob Pressler.)

  • Establish the terminology. First of all, if you haven’t done so already, establish the terminology you will use to inform everyone that a firefighter is in trouble. Some examples might be Urgent for situations of lost water, changing fire conditions, collapse potential, and so on; Emergency; Emergency Traffic; and Mayday. Mayday is most often used when a member is in peril-lost, trapped, out of air, or down; when a collapse has occurred or is imminent; or where any other circumstance that can seriously injure or kill him is present. Simply put, if we don’t get out of this right now, we’re not going to make it! Whatever word you come up with, make sure that everyone who works on your fireground understands it and is trained in it so that members will use it automatically should they get in trouble.
  • Clear all radio traffic. The IC should clear all radio traffic and attempt to identify the member in trouble. At this time, the RIT or company members assigned to this task should ready themselves to deploy into the structure. (We will not go into the specific tasks of the RIT here, since that is not the focus of this article, which is managing an incident when the Mayday rings out.)

    An emergency alert tone indicating that there is an emergency on the fireground can be activated at this point (this tone also establishes a radio emergency-only communications pertaining to the problem should be sent). If the IC can’t identify the member in trouble (because of freelancing or members’ moving about the structure without notifying Command), he should immediately perform a roll call, starting with his first-in interior companies and working out from there. At this point, the emphasis should be on accounting for each company, checking to see if each has all of its personnel. Asking for specific names can wait until you get to the company with a missing member. Then, you want to identify specifically who is missing. After a particular member is identified and reported m issing, announce the member’s name and ask if anyone operating on the scene knows this firefighter’s last location.

(3) Firefighters in the alley (right side of the photo) position the ladder to the window down the gangway between the buildings to rescue two firefighters trapped by rapidly extending fire above the fire floor.

Throughout this process, ask the following questions:

  • Who is trapped? How many are trapped?
  • What was the last location(s) of the member(s)?
  • What was the last assignment(s) of the member(s)?
  • Are they radio-equipped?

(4) A firefighter is trapped in the window as the fire rapidly extends to his position.

If possible, review the tactical worksheet. There have been times when companies were looking for someone only to find out that the firefighter made it outside or was working with another company. Because of the smoke, he may very well be thinking that he is working with his crew and not know that he is the reported missing member. This is where training in your accountability system pays off. As much as we like to think that we all stay together, sometimes things happen and we become separated.

Once the missing member is identified, deploy the RIT into the structure. In small residential structures, you may be able to get the RIT team in sooner. In larger commercial structures, the team could be deployed to the wrong area and risk shortening its air supply and potential rescue time. Being able to give the RIT the precise location of the member in distress or the member’s last known location will provide more valuable time. As you will see later, time is a factor when the Mayday goes out.

Freelancing “mutineers.” The pump operator is on top of the pile instead of at the rig.

Note: During the roll call, once you have discovered who is missing, continue with the roll-call process as soon as possible. This will help ensure that no one else is missing or in trouble and may also mentally jog freelancing crews’ minds into stopping and redirecting their actions.

Involve your dispatch center or fire alarm office. Have it conduct its own roll call of the units assigned to the incident. Have it account for the companies that radioed to them that they were en route and those that radioed that they were on the scene. You may discover that a company reported en route but never let the alarm office know it was on the scene. Worse yet, there have been instances in which the company bypassed Command and went to work inside the building. You could be up-to-date on who you know is on the scene, but the company in trouble could be the one you don’t know is on the scene. Carefully consider those departments that have volunteers or off-duty paid members responding to the scene in their personal vehicles.

  • Other tasks. Is EMS on the scene? If not, request a minimum of one advanced life support ambulance.
  • Keep the operation going. During all of this, the IC should attempt to keep working companies in their area of assignment until the location of the member or company in trouble is determined. At this point, companies can continue to work on the fire and ventilate; others can be redirected or given an assignment that will aid in the rescue effort (RIT support). One of our goals on the fireground has always been to get a hoseline between the fire and any civilians who may be trapped. Why wouldn’t we want to do the same for our own?


The first and foremost thing Command can expect is mutinies. This is perhaps the hardest scene a fire chief or IC faces. The natural tendency for many firefighters will be to drop what they are doing (literally and figuratively) and run to help their brother and sister firefighters. Sometimes, this may lead to a quick and successful rescue. Most of the time, it will lead to confusion, chaos, and possibly additional injuries and problems.

To control mutinies, you must do three things: expect them, practice how to react to them (which will lead to the next step), and control them. It is easy to expect mutinies. It is not easy to practice and eventually control them. First, you need a commitment from management to allow drills at simulated and then real incidents.

Training Drills

Drills, again, tend to be a small obstacle to overcome. To eventually practice handling mutinies at real fire incidents is another thing. Pick your battlegrounds. Vacant city-owned structures that will be used for a training burn work best (training burn buildings also work well). Prior to the fire, inform a few members, such as Safety and a few key officers, that you intend to have a crew “go down.” If the opportunity presents itself, and after the bulk of the fire has been knocked down, have a crew (or firefighter) “go down” inside in a safe and protected area. Then watch as the initial call for Mayday rings out. Forcefully but calmly, direct crews, and then critique the scene afterward. Explain where the scene went well and where more problems could have been created by the actions that actually occurred.

If you anticipate mutinies and then attempt to adjust to them, the real scene should a Mayday occur may end as you had hoped.


On-scene members must consider some psychological concerns to fully grasp and understand what is actually happening on the scene. Based on discussions with psychologists, certain basics can be relayed.

  • The psychology of the trapped, injured, or lost firefighter. This firefighter’s sole focus will be on removing himself from danger, if it is possible (it will not be possible in a collapse or if the firefighter gives up). He will ignore obvious factors in the area (fire, smoke conditions, structural elements, and so on). The firefighter in distress may walk (or run) past an open window in obvious view because he was looking for the stairs, or he may crawl over and ignore a hoseline while looking for a safety rope (even though common sense says that the hoseline has to be hooked to something at the other end such as an engine discharge port or a standpipe connection in a stairway).

    The firefighter in distress will usually revert to what was learned and is “routine” for him. If he has been taught to disentangle himself properly, and that action has been positively reinforced (practiced) on a periodic basis, then the accepted routine of disentanglement will be customary and routine, and he will in most cases follow it. If a firefighter learned never to remove his SCBA, he won’t even when he actually has to do so. There have been documented instances in which firefighters died when they ran out of air only feet from a door or stairway because they were taught never to remove their facepiece. That’s the key reason firefighter self-rescue programs are so necessary.

    Don’t expect a firefighter to accomplish a manipulative maneuver learned in a one-hour training session, especially if the task was learned months ago and never practiced after that.

    Finally, the firefighter in distress will overcompensate-he will not be able to feel safe enough. Once he is outside, you may not be able to get him far enough away from the building. If he is in a high-rise building, taking him down two floors below the fire may not be far enough away from the danger to make him feel safe. If, while trying to extricate him, you bring an extra SCBA bottle for him, he may insist on having more than one bottle for himself. Remember, his sole and overriding focus is to survive.

    When you locate the firefighter in distress, do the following:

  • Speak calmly.
  • Reassure him.
  • Explain every action you are taking. He may not understand your reason for cutting his bunker coat to start an IV or for disconnecting his breathing tube to hook him up to another SCBA with a fresh bottle.
  • Promise him anything. Then, try to keep your promises.

The Psychology of the Rescuers (RIT or Freelancing Firefighters) Who Commit Mutiny

The first thing the IC must understand is that these individuals, when activated, will focus or tunnel in on the rescue. However, they may ignore the obvious:

  • Fire conditions-flashover, rollover, changing smoke conditions, and the like.
  • Safety-they might ignore safe practices.
  • Performance-they may not be able to perform multitasks.

Get crews inside with the RIT to focus on fire conditions. Backup lines should be staffed by crews who will focus on backup. Assigning a safety officer specifically to the RIT may save several lives during the Mayday.

The Psychology of the Others On-Scene

As stated earlier, expect mutinies. Most firefighters who hear the Mayday will want to run to help their brother or sister. They, too, (as with the firefighter in distress and the RIT team) may ignore the obvious. They may pass fire, reach the end of the hoseline, drop the nozzle and continue on, and ignore building and fire conditions. These firefighters must be controlled. Some should remain and fight the fight, so to speak. Others, when it is safe, should regroup and be used for RIT support. Give them a task, and hope for the best. Crews allowed to “just stage” during a Mayday will become very frustrated and vocal if things start to go wrong. Give them something to do-RIT support!

The Psychology of Command

Many ICs will have to resist the temptation to be the hands-on guy when the call goes out. The natural tendency is to run in and look for your members. Except in the rarest of circumstances, resist this temptation. This type of fire, more than any other, needs a strong Command presence. If Command and perhaps a driver (two-in/two-out) are the only members on the scene when the Mayday goes out, then some rapid decisions must be made. But under most circumstances, when crews are available and on-scene, Command should remain outside and direct the rescue efforts.

Command will want more than the usual number of updates from crews. The RIT officer will need to be aware of this and update Command often. Command will also tend to overcompensate. For this reason (and others), if staffing is adequate, Command should build a small “think-tank” at the Command post to help in the decision-making process. This will be discussed later.


  • Command should consider time. Brand-new turnout gear will last no longer than approximately five minutes at 5007F. The dirtier the turnouts, the shorter the time frame. So, if the area holding endangered crews is at or near flashover (7007F to 1,4007F), you have little time to lose. The RIT needs to get in, and hose streams need to be working the fire in the area of the endangered members ASAP.

    SCBA bottles will last approximately 15 minutes (30-minute bottles). You may get up to 30 minutes on a 60-minute bottle. Whatever the size of the bottle, you will need to transport extra bottles into the area if a sustained rescue or search is required.

    Finally, if the rescue or search for the endangered firefighter(s) is in a structure, you will need to monitor the structure’s stability. Partial or total collapses can be anticipated in most structure types (except for totally reinforced concrete structures). Time frames for collapse can range from seconds to 20 minutes or more, depending on the type of construction, the degree of fire in the area, and the size of the structural members. Know your buildings!

  • Command should consider staffing constraints. The RIT should be a minimum of four members. If the team has to split into two teams, four is the lowest number that can be safely split. Four members can stabilize and drag a seriously injured member.

    If the RIT is to seek out a member in an area where fire could be a concern, then you will need a hoseline to shadow (or wait if the line is already in place) the RIT. This line will require a minimum (and we mean minimum) of two members. They will need a new bottle or another two members for relief every 15 minutes (if 30-minute bottles are used). If two lines or a backup line is required, then these numbers grow in proportion.

    Let’s say that the RIT locates a missing firefighter. The firefighter is pinned by a steel girder on the second floor of a warehouse. The fire is being held in check for the time being with two 21/2-inch lines (six members)-one for holding the fire and an additional backup line. The RIT requests by radio a set of airbags and a hydraulic prying tool. Two firefighters will be needed to shuttle the SCBA bottles and airbags to the area. Two more firefighters will be required to bring in and operate the tool. Additionally, two paramedics will be brought in to administer pain medication and set up IVs. This will require one escort. Seventeen members are in this operation-four RIT members and 13 in RIT support. We hope this illustrates that the RIT cannot stand alone for a long time. RIT support is a real and labor-intensive function. Since many departments do not have staffing to support this number of RIT and RIT support members, as stated earlier, additional alarms or mutual-aid requests should be among the first things out of Command’s mouth after the Mayday goes out. Staffing constraints should not interfere with the safe removal of a downed firefighter. Get help!

    The command post. The officers in charge of the fire and the rescue and Command must be together and must talk. If the channels are available, it is most efficient to establish a separate radio channel for Command, for “the fire” (different from the one used prior to the Mayday), and for the RIT (the original fireground channel).

  • Command should remove nonessential crews. There are two reasons for removing nonessential crews on the scene when a Mayday sounds: to control or hold in check the inevitable freelancing and to get members who can provide RIT support.

    The essential crews are the following: (1) the RIT; (2) any hoseline in the last known location of the firefighters giving the Mayday and any backup crew in the same location; and (3) any hoseline that can be used to hold the fire away from the area of the lost, injured, or trapped firefighter(s).

    Ventilation in progress that will help draw fire and heat from the area is also essential. If additional crews are available, open up as much of the building as possible without drawing fire into the area of the rescue.

    Finally, any available search crew still conducting a primary search for viable civilian victims should continue. All other crews are nonessential and should be withdrawn, accounted for, and reorganized.

    RIT support will grow to at least three times the size of the RIT team. Bottles, tools, and perhaps escorts in and out of the area will be required.

  • Don’t overlook breaching walls. Consider all options. As stated earlier, establish a “think tank,” and use it. Diagram the area where the firefighters were last known to be, and then look at the building. Evaluate staffing and time constraints, and consider breaching any walls that are or could be the only barrier between you and the trapped firefighter. Do you know how long it takes one of your truck crews (or other crews) to breach a block wall? Do you know how to cut through rebar and how long it will take? Do you know what shape a hole in an ordinary (brick or block) wall should be? (Triangle).
  • Communications. Communicating during a Mayday will be challenging at best. All Mayday incidents have one common denominator-yelling! As far as officers and Command are concerned, stop the yelling as soon as possible. Communications from Command and to the crews from company officers should be deliberate, calm, clear, and concise. Only essential communications should be allowed. If available, the RIT and the distressed firefighters should be on the same channel. The remainder of on-scene personnel could be placed on another channel. Unless very cool heads prevail, avoid attempts to have the lost or trapped crew change channels. If you already can talk to them, don’t press your luck. Have others move to different channels.

    The Rescue.

    The officer in charge of the rescue will need two general things-a RIT and RIT support. RIT support is the “Logistics” of the rescue.

    The three (or more) individuals (Command and the officers in charge of “the fire” and of “the rescue”) will need to be together, and they must talk. Establishing three separate radio channels, if available, will help-one Command channel and a channel for “the fire” (this should be a different channel from the one used prior to the Mayday), and one for the RIT (which should be the original fireground channel).

  • Command must be able to “multitask” conceptually. Command will have many, many conversations, thoughts, and visual observations running through his head at the same time. He must be able to sort and prioritize these thoughts and observations while clearly defining tasks and expectations. He must continually think on two fronts, the fire and the rescue. This may call for simultaneous and conflicting demands for resources. Command must be allowed to step back (even five feet) and momentarily weigh requests and realities and then come up with a sound decision, based on fact rather than emotion and unrealistic hopes. To accomplish all of this and still maintain some sort of Command presence that will convey control and coordination, Command must be able to multitask conceptually.
  • Command should give up his portable ASAP! The last thing Command needs now, more than at any other time on the fireground, is his radio. Get an aide to monitor the Command channel. By now, Command should have built a staff into the command structure to take care of such matters so that he can stand back and think. Command needs to focus on and coordinate two very vital and at times unrelated actions at this incident-the fire and the rescue. This is no time to be concerned with “chatter.” The aide can sort the B.S. from the important stuff while the IC stands back and thinks-a point stressed frequently in courses on incident command presented at the National Fire Academy.


After the firefighter rescue, Command should conduct another PAR and account for all crew members on the scene once again. Remember that even though you drill on Maydays and the use of the RIT, freelancing and mutinies may occur. Take the five minutes necessary to get another PAR.

After the PAR, reestablish a plan of attack for the original fire. As soon as you can, send additional crews to the scene for relief and reassign on-scene crews to the necessary assignments. As soon as relief comes, get the original on-scene crews to a debriefing. They should be required to leave the scene. Their adrenaline and focus will be hard to redirect. Anticipate subsequent injuries if the original on-scene crews are allowed to finish out the fire.

Consider support sectors such as a public information officer to handle the media and a chaplain to handle critical incident stress management (CISM).

Training in incident management, rapid intervention, and rescue techniques obviously is just a start of what we need to do to handle these incidents. Take time to review past incidents, and look at what got you in trouble. Determining your resources and developing your own lost/trapped firefighter policy are absolute necessities. How well Command manages the Mayday and how well all on-scene crews interact with one another will determine the success or failure of the toughest type of incident we will ever fight.

JOHN F. (SKIP) COLEMAN has been a member of the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue Operations for 24 years, where he is deputy chief of operations. He has been an instructor at Owens Community College, one of Ohio’s largest community colleges, for more than 10 years. Coleman is also a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy’s Command and Control of Fire Department Operations at Multialarm Incidents course. Coleman is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997). He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is working toward his bachelor’s degree at the University of Cincinnati. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Advisory Board.

RICK LASKY, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Coeur d’Alene (ID) Fire Department. He previously was a battalion chief with the Darien-Woodridge Fire District in Darien, Illinois. He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Advisory Board.

(1,2) Two firefighters were trapped in this collapse. (Photos by Bob Pressler.) (3) Firefighters in the alley (right side of the photo) position the ladder to the window down the gangway between the buildings to rescue two firefighters trapped by rapidly extending fire above the fire floor. (4) A firefighter is trapped in the window as the fire rapidly extends to his position.

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