Mayday: Are You Prepared If It Happens To You?


“MAYDAY!” Sooner or later it just might happen to you. Will you be prepared? Consider the following scenario.

On arrival, you encounter heavy smoke in a two-story double residence. Your company is assigned to search and rescue. The first-due engine is in the process of making the hydrant and advancing the attack line. The search begins. The house is very cluttered, and it’s difficult to make progress. As you begin to make your way to the second floor, the stairs give way and you find yourself in the basement. Your partner already made the floor and doesn’t realize you’re not right behind him. The engine crew runs into a slight delay, and the fire begins to gain the stairway to the second floor.

Any number of situations can lead to a firefighter Mayday. Envision yourself in the above scenario or in another situation in your community that might be as dire. Have you and your department done anything to meet the challenge of your own personal Mayday?

At this time, you want to avoid confusion, which, even if only temporary, can impede-if not prevent-progress in resolving the emergency. Having a plan to follow can minimize the confusion common to such an event and help you to avoid tunnel vision. The following guidelines can facilitate solving problems should you find yourself in a Mayday situation:

  • Orient yourself. This may be a difficult thing to do, but take a few seconds to calm down and get your bearings. Determine the following: What’s the status of your air supply? What were you doing? Were you near a wall? Were you advancing or following a hoseline? Were you on the first floor, second floor, in the basement? Who was with you, and where are they now? By quickly assessing the situation, you may be able to rapidly solve it. Don’t panic and begin moving aimlessly throughout the structure. Your entry should have been systematic, and your actions during this problem-solving exercise should be as well.
  • Communicate with your crew. At least one other firefighter should be with you. Have you been separated? Can you communicate with him? Constant communication during fireground operations is essential, especially among individual crews. If for some reason you are unable to contact your crew, it’s likely they don’t know about your situation.

Fireground noise makes it difficult to hear, period! Radio technology doesn’t help the situation. Does every member on the fireground carry a portable radio? If not, is there at least one radio per inside crew? Where do you carry your radio-in your chest or pants pocket? Do you use a lapel microphone? Can you hear everything being relayed over the radio? (Probably not.) Consider these things when trying to contact your crew inside a structure.

Consider the normal course of action in notifying your crew. The first thing that’s usually done is to call out to the other crew members through an SCBA. If the crew isn’t very close, members probably can’t hear you. A radio transmission may come next-if everyone carries a radio. What happens next if those attempts fail? One other option is to use a tool to make NOISE. Make as much noise as possible with the tool, and activate your PASS device (see below). Don’t give up trying to communicate inside the structure, but don’t let tunnel vision prevent you from dealing with the real problem!

  • Alert Command with Mayday. This is the time that the radio you’ve always carried pays for itself-if you use it! All too often, a firefighter in trouble waits until late in the emergency to call for help. Why? If you overcome the problem, just radio Command to let him know you have solved the problem. Whether you’re injured and can’t move from your location or are disoriented and beginning to troubleshoot the problem, notify Command early. If you’re unable to solve the problem, help will already be on the way.

Some of the most important facts to relay to Command are your unit number, the nature of the problem, your location (or last known location), the assignment you were performing, your condition, your air supply, and the status of your crew. It may be that your crew is unaware of the problem or may be actively working to correct it. In any case, reporting this information is crucial for accountability purposes.

  • Solve the problem. The above actions during your Mayday should take only a few seconds. Dealing with the problem should be your highest priority, and taking the above actions is part of dealing with it. Over the past few years, a tremendous amount of emphasis has been placed on self-rescue, firefighter survival, and rapid intervention training. Should you encounter a Mayday, you will be thankful that you have been trained in these principles. (If you haven’t, do so soon.) You can use a number of the skills taught in these programs to address your Mayday predicament. Use what you’ve learned. Improvise if you have to, and get out. Help should be on the way. If your initial attempts to solve the problem don’t succeed, go to the next step!
  • Activate your PASS device. It should already be turned on, so put it in the manual alarm mode now! One of the first things all firefighters need to focus on is the sound of an activated PASS device during fireground operations. If you hear one sounding, first make sure it isn’t yours. If it is, reset it! How many times have you ignored a nearby PASS device? How often was it yours? How many times have you let an activated PASS device move right by you in the smoke?

During your personal Mayday, activate your PASS device to alert others that you need help. If the members of your department have been trained and conditioned to proactively react to an activated PASS device, they’ll know somebody is in trouble. You may be only a few feet from other firefighters, but they won’t know it unless they hear you. Don’t focus solely on solving the problem and become so exhausted or overcome that your PASS device will have to remain motionless for 25 to 30 seconds before it activates. That 30 seconds may allow the rapid intervention team to pass you by. The team should be moving at a pretty fast clip because it’s searching for a firefighter in trouble. Why take a chance?

  • Solve the problem. This is repeated here deliberately because it is critical that you continue to try to solve the problem. Seconds count! Remain calm, orient yourself, know that help is on the way (you’ve broadcast a Mayday and activated your PASS device), and systematically attempt to solve your problem.


If you’re unable to solve the problem, do everything you can to make sure the RIT can locate you. Communicate with Command again. Communicate with the RIT, if possible. Make sure your PASS device is activated. Sound with a tool. At this point, your rescue hinges on the RIT’s ability to find you. Make sure you and your department are prepared should you encounter a Mayday situation!


A number of self-survival skills can be covered during company training sessions. The following training exercises should focus on the above steps for resolving your Mayday. All of the drills should be done while wearing SCBA and in no-visibility conditions.

Find a Hoseline and Follow It to Safety

Objectives/Preparation: Orient yourself inside the structure. Communicate Mayday information to Command. Find a hoseline, determine the direction to safety, and follow the line out. Update Command that you are following a hoseline toward the exit. Use a vacant structure, a training facility, or the apparatus floor.

Lay out a charged attack line. Incorporate loops in the line, and place obstacles, such as furniture, that might be encountered during a real fire. In no-visibility conditions, position a firefighter away from the attack line, and have him communicate a Mayday and find his way out. Add a few smoke detectors for sounds and distraction. Make sure the loops and obstacles provide the firefighter with a challenge. Do your firefighters know how to follow the couplings to the outside of a building?

Alert Command and Activate PASS Device

Objectives/Preparation: Using the same scenario as above, have the firefighter locate the line and attempt to move to safety.

At a point in the line, place an obstacle (a closed overhead apparatus door works well) that can’t be overcome. At this point, the firefighter should alert Command of the problem and provide information that will assist in locating and removing him. The information should include the line and the obstruction. After the transmission, the firefighter should activate his PASS device. Depending on the size of the structure, an exit or exterior wall may be nearby. Try anything to get out, but don’t get too far away from the location the RIT is coming to (a personal rope attached to the hoseline may work well here) and inform Command and the RIT of the actions you’re taking.

Every firefighter and department should participate in self-rescue and rapid intervention training. Sending firefighters into structures without training in how to respond to their own emergencies should not be allowed. Using rapid intervention teams that have not been trained in rapid intervention skills is the same as not having a rapid intervention team at all. How have you prepared to handle your own Mayday?

JIM McCORMACK, a 13-year veteran of the fire service, has been a firefighter with the Indianapolis (IN) Fire Department for the past two years. He is an FDIC H.O.T. instructor and president of the Fire Department Training Network, a membership network dedicated to firefighter training.

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