The Mayday

By Daniel P. Sheridan

The other night I came into work an hour early, a usual, to have some time to get myself ready for the night tour, have a cup of coffee in the kitchen, and see how things have been going for the past few days. When I entered quarters, I saw a cache of burnt tools and air cylinders by the front door waiting to be picked up by the tool room for replacement. I knew that they must have had a big fire. This winter in New York has been particularly brutal; we have had numerous snow storms and lots of days of, as the weather people on the news like to say, “wild weather.” This particular day was another day of very high winds with gusts up to 40 miles per hour. I entered the kitchen, grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down, and picked up the newspaper. I overheard the firefighters talking about the third-alarm the night before. Something that one of the firefighters said caught my attention. The firefighter who was assigned the outside vent position gave a very interesting transmission over his radio: He radioed to his officer that he was not able to get out the way he came in

At this point in the conversation, I put down my newspaper and asked the guys if they could elaborate on exactly what happened. They told me the story. The fire was on the first floor of a two-story, wood-frame building. There were a few stores on the first floor and apartments on the second story. The engine had moved in and extinguished the fire on the first floor and the truck was in the process of opening up the ceilings. The fire had extended to the floor above. The outside vent firefighter, whom I happen to know pretty well, had entered the second floor via portable ladder on the Exposure 1 (A) side of the building. He began doing his primary search when suddenly a tremendous gust of wind blew across the front of the building. The chief who was the incident commander (IC) at this fire described it as if someone took a giant brush and painted the front of the building with flame. When the IC saw this, he ordered everyone off the second floor because of the imminent potential for collapse. It was at this point that the firefighter gave that transmission.
The outside vent firefighter then teamed up with the other outside vent firefighter from the second-due truck company to find another way out. Conditions were deteriorating fast–every firefighter on the second floor was now scrambling for their life. When the two firefighters finally were able to find a window, it had a child guard on it. They didn’t have time to force the gate and really needed to exit in a hurry. The first firefighter was able to climb over it with some difficulty, but the second firefighter, who is a little bit larger, had much more trouble getting around the gate. Eventually they both were able to extricate themselves and escape down a portable ladder. Within seconds, the whole top floor was engulfed in flames and collapsed into the first floor. All units were now out of the structure and they switched to an outside attack.
After hearing this story in the kitchen, I told the guys that I was happy that everything turned out well but they were extremely lucky. The firefighter who barely escaped with his life returned to the firehouse the next morning after visiting the medical office. His face was burned a bit and had numerous scratches all over his neck and face. I pulled him aside to speak with him in private and I had to ask him, “Why didn’t you transmit a Mayday?” He responded that he didn’t think that it was that bad and he didn’t think he would have a problem getting out. I told him what I thought and that I would appreciate it that if he ever found himself in that type of situation, for everyone’s sake, to give the Mayday.
Firefighter Reluctance
Why are firefighters so reluctant to give a Mayday? There is definitely a perception by firefighters that giving a Mayday is some sort of weakness. I know because I have been there myself many times. As a firefighter, the last thing you want is guys to think that you are weak or helpless. Aren’t we supposed to be the ones providing the help? The guys will laugh at me, make fun, right? When a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, such as cancer, psychologists address the fact that a person will go through five stages: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, then finally acceptance. The thought-process is probably the same when it comes to giving a Mayday, with the difference being that you only have a few seconds to make a decision. 

When I have been in very tight spots in the past, my first reaction is denial, it’s not that bad. Sometimes there is no time at all. Twice as a young firefighter I was caught in a flashover and I barely had time to get out of the room I was in, let alone give the Mayday (besides, we didn’t have personal radios back then). Things can happen with lightning speed at a fire; one second you are fine and then before you know it you are scrambling for the door. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard some one saying after a good fire, “Wow, you can’t believe how lucky I was I almost ________ (fill in the blank).”

It is suggested to give a Mayday for the following situations (but not limited to these situations):

 I Owe You My Life.
  • Collapse Imminent
  • Collapse Occurred
  • Unconscious Firefighter
  • Missing Member
  • Firefighter Lost or Trapped
When I first came into the department, I was on duty one night when a commercial jet airliner was running low on fuel heading into John K. Kennedy airport; they were probably running on fumes. They were heading towards the airport but as usual there were quite a few planes ahead of them. The pilot recognized that he was in very serious trouble–I am sure all the alarms were probably lighting up the dash board. He transmitted an emergency, and I believe that the controllers in the tower did not fully grasp the gravity of the situation. Had they understood that his plane was out of fuel, they would have cleared all runways and landed his plane right away. The pilot failed to express the true nature of the situation to those that could have helped him and tragically the plane crashed a few miles from the airport, killing many people, in a very populated suburb of New York City. All the pilot needed to do was transmit a Mayday and they would have been fine. That Mayday is a buzz word that the IC will hone in on. If you are very nonchalant about your situation, no one will understand the true nature of the situation. I prefer to overestimate the situation and if turns out to not be a problem, all the better.
The unexpected is always going to happen at a fire if we are going to continue to employ aggressive interior attack. There is no way around it; firefighting, by its very nature is an inherently dangerous profession. The only thing that we can do is to try and prepare for these unexpected events the best we can. One way that we now prepare is to have a policy such as two-in/two-out or having a rapid intervention team (RIT)in place at every operation. But the only way that we can activate our RIT team is if the IC is aware of the situation, and the only way he can know something is wrong is if the person that is in trouble lets them know and that is by giving a Mayday. When I was inside battling the fire, I never wanted to be the guy who had to give the Mayday; now all of that has changed.
First and foremost, smoke is very toxic. When I came into the job, the old timers frowned upon using self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA); you were a sissy if you used one, firefighters were measured by how much smoke you can take. I even used to tell people that I could breathe smoke, but when I scuba dive I take that much more seriously, because I can’t breathe in water. My opinion on that has now changed as well. I now look at the Mayday as a tool that I can use to help me manage a firefighter in trouble by putting the RIT to work.
One time I was driving on a very busy highway with my wife. We were in the left lane and there was a lot of truck traffic. My car suddenly broke down–my timing belt had broke–and I was now stuck in the left lane with trucks zooming past us at 70 mph. This was before cell phones, and we were in trouble not of our own making. The same is true with firefighters: if they are going to perform their duties, things are going to happen. We can take all the proper measures, personal protective equipment (PPE), SCBA, hoselines in place, etc… but things still always happen, even when we do everything absolutely right. If that weren’t the case, anyone could do the job.
Mayday Incidents Revisited
The other night, again very windy, there was an apartment house fire in one of the other boroughs. The first-due truck company went to the fire apartment as per our standard operating procedure. The truck company found the apartment door left open; the windows failed suddenly and the fire blew out into the hallway, trapping the captain and his forcible entry team. Without hesitation, he transmitted a Mayday, and the result was positive. This was a very senior captain in a very busy truck company, but he recognized that he was in a bad spot, through no fault of his own. The windows failed and he took all the right steps to address the problem. The IC was able to deploy the RIT and the firefighters in trouble were able to escape unharmed.
I remember that first time I heard a Mayday given at a fire. We responded to a fire in a five-story tenement in the South Bronx. We were assigned second-due truck, which meant that we were responsible for the floor above the fire, which didn’t matter at this one because we already had the whole third floor going front to rear and it was auto-exposing and extending through the interior voids to the fourth floor. While operating on the floor above and searching for any victims that may be trapped I heard the Mayday. Fire came up through a hole in the floor while the engine was moving in. I thought one of the engine firefighters had gone through the hole in the floor. That was not the case: a firefighter on the roof had fallen down a shaft. He transmitted a Mayday from the bottom of the shaft saying he was alive but in bad shape. As soon as the Mayday was transmitted, firefighters stopped what they were doing and headed towards the shaft where the firefighter was down.
In the subsequent Maydays that I had been involved with in those early years, it was always the same situation. We would have a collapse and a firefighter would be trapped. Firefighters would cease firefighting operations and go towards the downed firefighter. Today with our RIT system, things are much more organized. In our department, the RIT has a dedicated radio that reads the number of the radio that is transmitting at all times. When a member transmits a Mayday, that radio has a particular ID number assigned to that position and it is easily addressed. The Mayday should then be handled in the following order: Fire, air and rescue. Sometimes a properly placed hoseline is all that it takes to alleviate the situation. If the downed firefighter is low on air, it is imperative that we get that firefighter on a positive air source ASAP. Two of my probie classmates were killed at two different fires where they wound up in the basement after a collapse and ran out of air. If the fire and rescue elements are both taken care of, we can then address the rescue itself. 

The department in the future will probably assign a RIT task force to handle the Mayday instead of just one unit made up of an engine, ladder, and a battalion chief. Having a separate task force ready to handle a Mayday will relieve the burden of the IC from getting overloaded dealing with a very stressful situation while trying to still maintain control of the incident at hand. I have heard it said somewhere that if you get in a bad situation and hesitate too long, it may already be too late. If you are wondering if you should give a Mayday, then you probably should.

DANIEL SHERIDAN is a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York and a covering battalion chief in the First Division. He is a national instructor II and a member of the FDNY IMT. Sheridan founded Mutual Aid Americas, which works with fire departments in Latin America. 

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