By Joseph Pronesti
For Part 1 of this series, click HERE
For Part 2 of this series, click HERE
For Part 3 of this series, click HERE
I work in a fairly urban small to midsize department of roughly 65 members. We don’t respond to a fire every day, but we do have our fair share based on our city’s lower socio-economic demographic and predominantly older construction. Like many departments large or small, my department fails to do any centralized Mayday training; my fellow command officers in my department have to do our own training, and that dysfunction can lead to obviously the “three shifts/three department” syndrome so common in the fire service.
I have been part of three Maydays. The first one was at a very early part of my career. A firefighter alone on a hoseline went through a floor during a basement fire. His officer was an old-school firefighter who never wore a mask and was on the porch feeding hose. The member who went through the floor hung onto the line and was pulled up by a masked-up search crew that followed the line in on the first floor.
The second was during an arson fire in a trailer. What made this so different than the others was that it occurred with many members out of position—including myself—because of overtime fills. The Mayday was created partly because of the dysfunction between the crews, the result of my department not functioning cohesively as an organization.
My third Mayday was a medical call during a working garden apartment fire. A firefighter fell down a set of stairs, breaking his ankle. When he was found, a Mayday was called. When the Mayday was called, I left my sector C position and ran to the front of the structure; I was undisciplined and untrained in my Mayday duties, so when I arrived on the A side, everyone had a piece of the Mayday firefighter. The commander of this event was one of the finest I had ever worked for, however, he chastised the young lieutenant who called the Mayday after the event, which I felt was unnecessary. Training and discipline beforehand would’ve really helped our members confronted with this event that was minor in nature but could have devolved into something more serious. How would I have acted along with the others? Another lesson was learned.
In Part 3 of this series, I mentioned a report conducted by a former Chief Don Abbott that reviewed 1,371 Maydays. Abbott surveyed 1,064 incident commanders (ICs) of those Maydays reviewed, and what he found really hit home and disturbed me: 100 percent of those ICs stated that they participated in Mayday training prior to the actual Mayday incident, but only 27 percent participated in Mayday training prior to them being an IC, while 98 percent stated that the Mayday was their first. My conclusion is that ICs get “lost in the fog” when they fail to prepare prior to the Mayday. Department training officers and chiefs need to do a better job preparing their ICs before the event occurs.
So, how do we prepare? I believe it starts with recognizing your shortcomings as an IC. Do you need to review and improve your fire behavior training? Do you really know the housing and building stock in your city or district? When you do have multicompany training drills on Maydays play out from start to finish and fill your role as IC. If your fireground is recorded, use the transcripts in your training review with your members so you can analyze and improve communication between you and your members.
As Chief Anthony Avillo has said many times, always make sure you have at least three companies in reserve at a working incident. For example, you and your crews are at a working fire that taken hold of the voids in a 50- × 100-foot three-story building of mixed type III construction. Crews are chasing pockets of fire all everywhere. What if something negative happens or fire extends and you turn around at the command post and find no one behind you standing by? Sometimes, the “fog” can catch us as ICs as we throw everything we’ve got at the fire and fail to keep an adequate reserve. Rapid intervention teams (RITs) are needed and should be considered as an additional reserve, but do not make the mistake of simply assigning one three-member company as an RIT at an aggressive commercial building fire in the offensive mode. No magic formula will keep your fireground sites clear from the fog and give you an adequate amount of staffing on scene.
Regarding RITs, remember to consider having a separate line available strictly for the RIT; if they are from a mutual-aid company, make sure they know where to get a line and have it at the ready. The video below offers an excellent example of this courtesy of Fire Department of New York Battalion Chief (Ret.) Jerry Tracy, who explains a fire and the use of an RIT line.
My experience in this matter is strictly from a smaller department’s point of view; I will not attempt to comment on those of larger department operations. I will, however, steal the “big city” concept of additional chief officers on alarms. When chiefs say, “We will call extra chiefs after the Mayday is called,” what is the reason for this? Make notifications to deceased or seriously injured members’ families? If your department does not have the ability to get additional chiefs in on routine alarms and events prior to anything bad happening, you need to find a way such as creating a “chiefs box” or training with them get to know them. If you are a chief, take other surrounding areas’ chiefs to lunch and talk about each other’s personnel, buildings, procedures, and so on.
Mayday Check Sheet
A Mayday check sheet is a must have for an IC. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel; simply have a checklist to help jog your memory on the things needed to do in the event of a Mayday which will be valuable to you, especially if you are operating as the only chief officer. (SHEET COMING SOON.)
Continuing Operations During the Mayday
As an IC, one of the first factors you must consider in the event of a Mayday call is the current status of the fire. I have studied and listened to many Mayday calls where all focus was placed on the member in distress and the fire was left unchecked, further hampering operations. Do not forget the fire! Chief Vincent Dunn once described to me a fire where a trapped officer kept calling Maydays and the entire fire operation turned chaotic. Three women were also trapped during this response as they screamed for God’s help. The fire officer was rescued. The women all died. The IC retired.
There may be times when the safety of those working on the fireground outweigh the firefighter who may already be lost. We leave no one behind, but when the fire has taken possession of the building or the collapse of a building is eminent, we as ICs must know when to halt rescue operations and begin recovery operations. It comes with the burden of command, and I hope that anyone reading this ever has to go through such an ordeal. One such chief who unfortunately did and has taught many ICs about courage is Chief Mike McNamee of the Worcester (MA) Fire Department. On December 3, 1999, McNamee had to decide to stop rescue efforts at the Worcester Cold Storage Fire. McNamee described having to physically stretch his arms across the door and hold back firefighters who wanted to desperately save their brothers upstairs. McNamee’s leadership and decision that fateful night probably saved more firefighters from harm.
Go in your office or a quiet room home, close the door, and train yourself using the one of the many fireground videos offered on the internet, while also looking at videos of offensive attacks. Pause the video and throw in a Mayday. If you are computer savvy, put these videos in software that allows you to break down the video like “game film” or add words and audio enacting a Mayday. It’s up to you, your time, your imagination, and your dedication. Although it is never spoken, there is a superstition in our profession where many believe that if they train on a terrible event, it will actually come true one day. However, could you look into the eyes of a widow of one of your crew members and actually tell her that you did all you could? Maybe that was the case during the event, but what about prior to the event? Were you prepared as a boss?
In 2010, my city’s police force dealt with a tragic line-of-duty death involving the shooting, beating, and killing of a very competent officer inside a residence. The event involved many of his closest friends, and a few days after this tragedy, I was at a bar with several of these men (including the shift commander of the police officers involved) who was sitting at the bar by himself. I sat next to him and started to express my condolences. He looked at me and said that he blamed himself for what happened. He felt he let his crew down by not totally training, leading, and preparing them. It was after this conversation that I began to dedicate myself to preparation and personal training in command, especially if and when I am confronted with a Mayday. If you are an IC, start preparing today. You owe it to yourself and the members under your command!
JOSEPH PRONESTI is a 26-year veteran of the Elyria (OH) Fire Department, where he is an assistant chief and shift commander. He is a graduate of the Ohio Fire Chiefs’ Executive Officer program and a lead instructor at the Cuyahoga (OH) County Community College Fire Academy. He is a contributor to fire service publications and sites, including Fire Engineering. He will be presenting a four-hour preconference classroom at FDIC International 2016 titled “Main Street Tactics and Strategies: Are You Ready?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org