THE IMPORTANCE OF MAYDAY/URGENT RADIO GUIDELINES

BY MICHAEL A. TERPAK

Recent events over the past few years have required that fire departments from all over the country revisit current practices and procedures regarding firefighter safety. In a serious attempt to bring awareness to the increased number of firefighter deaths in 2005, organizations led by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) formed a “National Firefighter Safety Stand Down.” In an attempt to focus attention on the increased number of firefighter injuries and fatalities, departments were asked to take steps to review, evaluate, and revise procedures and guidelines in an increased attempt to enhance firefighter safety.

One such document and procedure recently revisited by the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department (FDJC) was its MAYDAY and URGENT radio guideline and operating procedure. Through this review and evaluation, members of the fire department’s training division updated the procedure and implemented a training and evaluation process to ensure its understanding and use.

RESEARCH AND EVALUATION

The review and evaluation process began with the establishment of a Research and Evaluation Team (RET), department members from staff and line positions. They were given two distinct responsibilities. The first was to research the subject area in any resources available. Research often includes other fire departments’ policies and procedures, text from accepted standards and practices, as well as recognized publications and Web sites. This step was an attempt to eliminate “reinventing the wheel.”

The second responsibility was to gather input and analysis from members in the street. Firefighters and fire officers who will be responsible for using and carrying out the specifics of the procedure have to be part of the developmental process. This is a necessary requirement with any new or revised procedure within the FDJC that has proved to be a valuable step for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, our members have to buy into the procedure from the standpoint of whether it is practical and measurable. If it doesn’t make sense, or if it creates or presents an unrealistic set of goals and objectives, members will never fully absorb it, and we, therefore, would not be able to use it.

The second benefit is the level of experience and knowledge our members possess. We have to tap into this. We are very big believers in the concept of “experience.” One of our best resources is our people, most notably in the procedure to be described. When we send out for review a rough draft or proposal on a specific subject, we always ask for and receive members’ input. The feedback is invaluable. In the case of our MAYDAY/URGENT guideline, it became an integral part of the completed document.

This approach can be further justified by research that shows the continued difficulties with identifying parameters and the need to eliminate the negative stigma associated with transmitting a MAYDAY. Without doubt, these two areas had to be addressed, and why wouldn’t we include street firefighters and fire officers in the decision-making process? The subject area demanded it.

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MAYDAY AND AN URGENT MESSAGE?

The answer is, yes; there should be. Research from a number of fire departments around the country on this subject area has shown that there are different interpretations of the words MAYDAY and URGENT. For many, the use of the word MAYDAY signifies that a firefighter is specifically in trouble and needs help. In others, we found that the use of the word MAYDAY could have multiple meanings. Not only can the word identify that a member is in trouble, but it could also signify a potential building collapse, a loss of water in a hoseline, or even the need to bring attention to a change in fire conditions. What quickly became evident from this research was our need to keep the definition and its use simple by establishing ease with procedural knowledge and recognition-more specifically, eliminate multiple definitions, situations, and the need to interpret under the distress.


(1) A firefighter runs out of air and finds an exit. A MAYDAY was never transmitted. (Photo by Ron Jeffers.)

This approach could be further emphasized by reviewing past MAYDAY incidents. By studying previous events, it quickly became evident that MAYDAY radio transmissions often occur at the worst possible time in the incident. An escalating or deteriorating incident, accompanying radio traffic, and the anxiety and confusion that could come from hearing either a whole or partial emergency radio transmission not only requires that your MAYDAY and URGENT radio transmissions have a clear definition and association; it also requires that you have a clear and easily recognizable set of parameters. Lack of procedural knowledge or confusion with procedure design under distress have been identified as difficulties when it comes to determining when and how to call a MAYDAY.

MAYDAY OPERATING GUIDELINE

Following is a suggested guideline for MAYDAY and URGENT procedures.

Definition: MAYDAY/URGENT Radio Use

Use of the word MAYDAY will indicate that a firefighter/fire officer has become lost, trapped, seriously injured, or exhausted his breathing air at the scene of an emergency incident. Specifically, a firefighter is in need of immediate help.

MAYDAY Parameters

This is a critical part of an operational procedure, most notably a procedure that outlines how to confront time-pressure changing conditions. It is critical when developing a parameter list that the list stay true to the outlined definition. It is also important to eliminate the documented difficulties and consequences of interpreting time, channeled attention, and loss of situational awareness commonly associated with the MAYDAY.

A firefighter/fire officer will transmit a MAYDAY if any of the following conditions exist:

  • You become lost or trapped or have sustained a serious or life-threatening injury.
  • A serious or life-threatening injury has occurred to another member.
  • You discover a lost, trapped, seriously injured, or unconscious firefighter.
  • You become entangled, pinned, and unable to free yourself after the first attempt.
  • Your low-air alarm is activated, and you are unable to find an exit.
  • There is zero visibility, and you have no contact with a hoseline or a search rope and you do not know where the exit is.
  • Your primary exit is blocked by fire or collapse and you cannot locate an immediate secondary exit.
  • You fall through a floor, roof, or staircase or down a shaft.
  • You are caught in a rollover condition and cannot find an exit.
  • You are caught in a flashover.
  • Other situation(s) that fit the definition of a MAYDAY.

MAYDAY Radio Procedure

1. Activate the EIB (emergency identifier button) on your portable radio.

2. Use and follow the MAYDAY procedure as outlined in this document. In an attempt to send out as much useful information as possible in the shortest time, remember the acronym “M-WWW” as a retention guide:

Example:
MMAYDAY (to be announced three times)
Who-Identify your radio designation (Ladder 10 Alpha, Engine 20)
What-Give your situation (lost, trapped, injured, and so on)
Where-Give your location [floor, side, other (3rd floor, Side C)]
Example: MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!
Ladder Co. 10 Alpha.
I’m trapped under a ceiling collapse.
3rd floor, Side C.

3. The member transmitting the MAYDAY must pause after each message and then repeat the message until the incident commander (IC) acknowledges it.

4. The Fire Department Fire Dispatch Center must relay any MAYDAY messages not immediately acknowledged by the IC.

5. Members are also required to activate their PASS device in between each message and after it is acknowledged. IMPORTANT: If the PASS device remains activated during the transmission of the MAYDAY message, it will cause significant background noise, making the message unreadable.

MAYDAY Radio Acknowledgment

1. It is critical that all members at the scene of an emergency understand that MAYDAY transmissions take priority over all other transmissions, including URGENT messages. NO exceptions!

2. When a MAYDAY transmission has occurred, the IC must clear the air of all other radio traffic and establish contact with the lost, trapped, or injured member(s). Once contact is established, the IC should attempt to obtain more specific information that may assist in the rescue attempt, if it proves necessary.

Example: Command to all units, clear the radio for a MAYDAY message.
Command to Ladder 10 Alpha, go with your MAYDAY.
Ladder 10 Alpha, could you provide us with any other information?

3. The requesting of other or more specific information will be determined by the amount of information originally transmitted in the MAYDAY, the square footage and layout of the building, and the needs of the IC and rapid intervention crew. Information requests could include but would not be limited to the following:

  • Can you tell us the best/closest access route to you?
  • Can you hear a hose stream or saw operating nearby?
  • Are you near a stairway, shaftway, wall, or other building feature?
  • What is the condition of the injured member(s)?
  • What tools and equipment are needed?
  • Can you give us any other useful information?

Managing a MAYDAY

1. Mayday events that involve a lost, trapped, or injured firefighter or fire officer will tax the resources and management of any incident. Incident management could be further taxed when multiple Maydays are transmitted and the incident is still evolving. ICs must maintain control and continuity of the incident by any means available to them. Options available to all commanders include but are not limited to the following:

  • Use of multiple rapid intervention crews for deployment and replacement.
  • Transmitting an additional alarm. This is an option for the IC at anytime during the incident but is an advisable option when the fire is still NOT under control and no additional units are in reserve or staging.
  • Designate a separate radio frequency for the rescue “or” fire operation.
  • Conduct a Personnel Accountability Roll Call (PAR) to determine who and how many are missing.
  • Collect accountability tags and riding lists to determine who and how many are missing.
  • Review tactical worksheets and command boards to identify the company/members’ last assigned locations.
  • Establish and support a Rescue Group/Operation within your incident management.
  • Verify that fire suppression operations are continuing.
  • Remove all nonessential personnel.
  • Eliminate freelancing and establish control.
  • Request any additional resources and equipment that may be needed.
  • Other.

URGENT OPERATING GUIDELINE

 

URGENT Radio Guideline Defined

To further clarify the use of the URGENT reference, the enclosed guideline identified its use when a situation at an emergency scene produces a life-threatening situation. Although situations will vary with each incident, some of the more common occurrences that may fit this category include a potential collapse involving a wall or a roof or the total building failure, a loss of water on the fire floor with firefighters working above, or the release of a pressure relief valve on a pressurized tank involved or exposed to fire. In either case, the objective of this guideline is to prevent an injury or a death.

The use of the word URGENT applies to a life-threatening situation that has developed that could affect firefighter safety.

URGENT TRANSMISSION PARAMETERS

1. A firefighter/fire officer will transmit an URGENT message if any of the following conditions exist:

  • A serious/deteriorating change in fire conditions.
  • An interior attack is going to be discontinued and an exterior attack is being prepared.
  • Discovery of a structural problem indicating a potential or imminent collapse.
  • A fire has entered an exposure building to a degree that any delay may considerably enlarge the fire problem.
  • A loss of water, which would endanger members.
  • An excessive wind condition on the fire floor that could rapidly extend the fire, endangering members.
  • A downed electrical wire on the fireground or on a fire apparatus.
  • An unconscious, trapped, or disoriented civilian is located.
  • A message that warrants priority because of potential injury or death.
  • A life-threatening situation or event that has occurred or is developing.

URGENT RADIO TRANSMISSION PROCEDURE

1. Members are to use and follow the URGENT radio guideline as outlined below. In an attempt to send out as much useful information as possible in the shortest time, remember the acronym U-WWW as a retention guide.

Example:
U-URGENT (to be announced three times)
Who-Identify your radio designation (Engine 20, Ladder 10 Alpha)
What-Give your situation (be specific)
Where-Give your location [floor, side, other (3rd floor, Side C)]

Example: URGENT! URGENT! URGENT!
Engine 20 to Command.
We have lost water on the fire floor.

2. The member transmitting the URGENT message must pause after each message and then repeat the message until the IC acknowledges it.

URGENT Acknowledgment

1. It is critical that all members at the scene of an emergency understand that URGENT radio transmissions take priority over all other transmissions, with the exception of a MAYDAY message(s).

2. When an URGENT transmission has occurred, the IC must clear the air of all other radio traffic and establish contact with the member transmitting the URGENT message. Once contact is established, the IC should attempt to obtain more specific information about the situation, if it proves necessary.

Example: Command to all units, clear the radio for an URGENT message.
Command to Engine 20, go with your URGENT message.
Engine 20, could you provide us with any additional information?
OR
Engine 20, Do you need any assistance?

3. The requesting of other or more specific information will be determined by the amount of information originally transmitted in the URGENT message. Information requests could include but are not limited to the following:

  • If there is a serious/deteriorating change in fire conditions, obtain information about the location and affected areas.
  • If a structural problem indicating an imminent collapse is discovered, immediately evacuate the building and follow your department’s evacuation procedure.
  • If a structural problem indicating an eventual collapse concern is discovered, obtain information about the location and the potentially affected areas.
  • If fire is discovered entering an exposure building to a degree that any delay may considerably enlarge the fire problem, obtain information about the location and affected areas.
  • If there is a loss of water, which would endanger members, ask for the location/floor, the members affected, and which company lost water, if this information is not provided.
  • If an excessive wind condition on the fire floor could rapidly extend the fire and endanger members, obtain information relative to the floor, side, and options to correct or avoid injury
  • If an unconscious, trapped, or disoriented civilian is found, obtain information about removal, assistance, and other pertinent issues.

TRAINING AND EDUCATION

This is the final, but critical, component of any new guideline or procedure. In a serious attempt to identify situational awareness and ensure understanding and compliance, a series of practical training exercises must accompany this guideline.

All members’ abilities to recognize the difference between a MAYDAY and an URGENT transmission must be evaluated. They must also demonstrate that they know how to transmit their message and, most importantly, recognize when it should be transmitted. The decision to call a MAYDAY starts with removing the stigma associated with being in trouble.

Members cannot wait until they are in a life-threatening position to make this decision. History has shown that exposure to smoke and stress makes the decision-making procedure more difficult, if not impossible.

This procedure is designed as an operating guideline that will enhance the safety of an emergency incident if members understand, accept, and use it.

MICHAEL A. TERPAK has been in the fire service for 30 years, spending the past 25 years with the Jersey City (NJ) Fire Department, where he is a deputy chief in charge of the city’s Training Division. Throughout his career, he has worked in the city’s busier Lafayette and Greenville areas with Engines 10 and 17, Ladder 12, Rescue 1, and the chief of the city’s 2nd Battalion. He lectures nationally on fire/rescue topics and is the founder of Promotional Prep, a New Jersey-based consulting firm designed to prepare firefighters and fire officers for promotional exams. He has a BS degree in fire safety administration from New Jersey City University and is the author of Fireground Size-Up (Fire Engineering, 2002).

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