Q & A: Justin McCarthy on Down and Dirty Mayday

In October, New Haven (CT) Firefighter Justin McCarthy presented a Webcast on the “Down and Dirty Mayday.” Below are some questions from viewers, along with Justin’s responses.

Q. Better to train and fail, or to succeed every time? I think failure in training brings some members closer to reality. Your thoughts on training as far as success every session or not?

A. I find that members who fail in training learn more and appreciate the topic more. However, there is another side to this: failure needs to be built upon, not dwelled upon. Firefighters as a whole try to do their best, and if they are afraid to fail, often they are afraid to try. The learning environment needs to be positive to facilitate good outcomes. Always getting it right in training can and will lead to a false sense of security. With this it is also important to keep it real; when training gets into the “We never do that” realm it should probably be tapered back.

Q. In reference to an injury or medical problem: If your partner is having a medical emergency and you are able to make your way out, should you call a Mayday? Or only if we can’t immediately make our way out?

A. I think that anyone can and should call the Mayday. It does not matter if it is for you or for your partner. However, I think it depends on the partner’s air and need for resources as to if he should help evac the member or start to find his way out.

Q. Once the fire you described in the Webcast has self-ventilated from the windows, would it not be a better scenario if you close the doors on the other side of the structure?

A. I think the best option is to close the door to the fire room. By shutting the fire room door, you are able to confine the fire, which will limit the spread and will allow the members to make a more focused attack. Right now there are some great studies being done by Underwriters Laboratories that go into much more detail and I think they may better explain it on a technical level.

Q. Why not get in a bathroom? I know it has a small window, but you can fill the bathtub with water, and use a wet rag to breath in as a last resort.

A. I am not a fan of trying to get into a bathroom for refuge unless it is a total last resort. My reasoning might be somewhat “Northeast,” but as you said the windows are very small–this means your only way out is the way you came in, which has become a non-option. The other issue is often the bathroom has no window and is also a very tight area, which can be overlooked during search if there is a communication issue.

Q. Where can we find standard oprating guidelines (SOGs) on Mayday?

A. I have had great luck looking online for other department’s SOGs. I think by looking around you can see what is being done and formulate a specific SOP/SOG based on your needs and capabilities. I have a document that I can try to send you from up here, however the issue is that it is very region-specific, in my opinion.

Q. Should we prepare move all other units responding or operating at the scene to another radio channel to operate on to keep the Mayday channel clear?

A. I am a fan of keeping the Mayday, rapid intervention team (RIT), and commander of the RIT ops on one radio channel. Once this is done, everyone else can switch channels. However, this needs to be put in place during training and through SOP/SOGs. The chaos on the fireground will only be compounded if the Mayday is being walked on again and gain.

Q. What should we do if a Mayday is called by two separate firefighters at the same time?

A. Manage the one that is in the most dire straits and focus on trying to get them into an area of safety while also trying to knock down the fire. This is a true worst-case scenario and I think a lot will have to deal with the staffing that is available.

Q. In a volunteer setting, our two-out team also has the RIT bag next to them. Do you feel this is efficient?

A. Have a department-specific RIT bag with some tools readily available. One thing that we just started and it seems to be working is that the RIT cache is placed on the front lawn as the RIT team arrives and stays there unless it is used. By always putting it out and in the same general area, the members on scene know where to go without much thought. This might work for you, but I think whatever you decide to do it should be consistent and should be trained on.

Q. Shoul you have a dedicated person on the outside of the building tracking progress, specifically the location of the interior attack/search team?

A. I think if you have the staffing to have an additional chief or officer who can be in charge either of the RIT or the actual fire while the incident commander IC) switches to a Mayday/RIT coordinator is very beneficial to a positive outcome. One IC often has a full plate just at a room-and-contents fire; now throw a RIT situation and it is easy to be overwhelmed. In my opinion, an SOP/SOG would really have to dictate this because it is so region-specific.


Justin McCarthyJUSTIN McCARTHY is a firefighter with the New Haven (CT) Fire Department and a fire instructor for the Wolcott Regional Fire School. He has a BS degree in fire science and has co-written the Tactical Perspective DVDs with Frank Ricci for Fire Engineering. He cohosts the PJ Norwood show on FE Blog Talk Radio monthly.

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