Use SOGs to Prepare for a Mayday

BY KEVIN “WILLY” WILSON

You are sitting around the dinner table with the crews talking about some of the calls you have been on and laughing about the pranks you pulled on the rookies. About halfway through dinner, you get tapped out for a large two-story residential structure fire. You arrive on-scene. Command gives a scene size-up, conducts a walk-around, and then gives a plan. You and your partner are assigned search and rescue on the second floor. At the door, your partner radios Command that you are on air and entering the structure on the alpha side. You make your way to the second floor. You end up going down a long hallway, searching through a couple of large rooms, a den, and a bathroom. You find nothing. The smoke is getting thicker, and visibility is decreasing.

THE PROBLEM

As you crawl down the end of the hallway, you find another room. You and your partner go in and search it together, trying to cover as much space as possible. You move furniture, look in a closet, and look in a bathroom when suddenly your low-air alarm starts to go off. You turn to your partner to inform him that you both need to get out and change bottles, but you cannot see or hear him. You call out to him a bit louder, thinking he is only a few feet away. Again, there is no answer. You call for a third time, even louder; still, there is no answer.

You hear a PASS alarm go off in the distance but cannot distinguish the source direction over the noise of your low-air alarm. Is it yours? Is it your partner’s? Could it be another crew member’s alarm? You try yelling your partner’s name again, but the low-air alarm and the PASS device make it difficult to hear and be heard. You quickly try to locate the wall you came in on but cannot, since your partner is anchored on the wall and verbal communication is now virtually impossible.

What do you do? Do you call for a Mayday? Do you attempt to locate your partner? Is your partner okay? Should you try to find the wall? Will it be the wall you came in on, or will it lead to another room? What if you call a Mayday and then find your partner? Should you wait to call a Mayday so you don’t get harassed by the guys or disrupt the fire scene unnecessarily? These are some of the things running through your mind. What would you do?

SOGs SERVE MANY PURPOSES

Although this MAY seem like a tough decision for some firefighters, others would not hesitate to call a Mayday. This scenario illustrates one of the most basic but often neglected issues confronting a good firefighter—when and how to call a Mayday. Does your fire department have standard operating guidelines (SOGs) specifically for this situation? If so, how specific are they? Do they act as a checklist? Does your department train for this situation regularly, or does management just assume you will know what to do when the time comes?

If you don’t have any SOGs on Maydays, why not? Are you going to wait until there is a close call or a line-of-duty death (LODD) in your department before you implement them? Don’t wait to make specific SOGs for a Mayday situation. The more information you have written down and the more training you conduct on this vital topic, the better equipped your department will be to safely mitigate such an emergency. To put it in perspective: How much time and energy would it take to implement and train on a new SOG as opposed to the time and energy it would it take to dig one of your crew members out of the building, inform the member’s spouse, plan the funeral, and have the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigate the fatality?

This article explains the reasons your department needs specific SOGs on how and why to call a Mayday.

THE HISTORY

In March 2004, the leaders of the American fire service gathered in Florida at a National Fire Fighter Life Safety Summit to discuss ways to lower the LODD rate. The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), at that time, had set a goal to decrease firefighter fatalities by 25 percent in five years (which will not happen unless a significant drop occurs in 2009) and 50 percent in 10 years. This initiative was to be accomplished by promoting the 16 Life Safety Initiatives (available at www.everyonegoeshome.com/). Since 1977, when the USFA started keeping records of LODDs, on average, 115 firefighters were killed every year. That number has not changed in more than 30 years! Statistically, there is a LODD every 80 hours. If you break down the LODDs, the leading causes of death are heart attacks and strokes, which claim approximately 50 percent. The second leading cause of death is motor vehicle collisions that occur while responding to and returning from calls, which claim just over 25 percent. The third leading cause of death is asphyxiation and trauma resulting from firefighting operations (collapses, out of air, lost, trapped), which claims just under 25 percent. It is this 25 percent of LODDs that Mayday SOGs can reduce.

SOG “RAPID INTERVENTION TEAM”

To help decrease LODDs in this category, the Clark County fire departments in Washington State (approximately 10 departments) and the Operations Division of the Clark County Fire Chiefs Association developed the “Clark County Washington Structure Fire Safety Guide.” The Camas Fire Department adopted and amended the SOG “Rapid Intervention Team” (No. 2.2.7), implemented by the Operations Division of the Clark County Fire Chiefs Association.1

The SOG states the following:

  • Firefighters in distress and who cannot move to safety should communicate by radio a Mayday distress signal, to advise other firefighters of their plight.
  • The incident commander (IC) shall acknowledge the Mayday, clear the channel of all nonessential traffic, obtain a detailed description of the situation, and immediately direct the rapid intervention team (RIT) to the firefighters’ location or last known probable location if the present location is not know.

If the IC thinks it is necessary to quickly assess the location and status of entire crews, he shall order a personnel accountability report (PAR). The IC announces the intention to conduct a PAR over all active frequencies and initiates a systematic PAR for each division/group or single resource engaged on the incident. The supervisor of a division or group responding to a PAR identifies each unit assigned to that division/group and its status. For single resources, the person in charge of that unit identifies himself and gives his status. If a crew is missing or does not answer the PAR, the IC directs the RIT to respond to the situation at the last known location of the crew. The PAR is used as a routine method to verify that all resources deployed are accurately reflected on accountability status boards.

The IC will initiate a roll call if he deems it necessary to identify the status of a specific firefighter, ensure that all crews are intact, or locate firefighters who have become separated, to facilitate their being reunited. The IC announces the intention to conduct a roll call over all frequencies and begins a systematic roll call for every firefighter on the scene through each unit’s officer. The call should be conducted from the status board the IC is maintaining for accountability purposes. The unit’s officer states who is assigned to his unit, who is physically accounted for, and the members’ status/assignment. If a firefighter is unaccounted for, the IC directs the RIT to respond to the situation at the firefighters’ last known location. A roll call is issued when firefighters are split up or a specific firefighter is missing or unaccounted for.

Should it be necessary to have firefighters evacuate a structure or an area, the evacuation is announced over the radio on all frequencies in use on the scene; a continuous sounding of air horns and sirens will follow for 10 seconds. The evacuation sequence will be as follows:

  1. 1. The IC orders over the radio that all divisions immediately evacuate the building or area.
  2. 2. If possible, the IC specifies a meeting place.
  3. 3. Division supervisors order all crews out of their respective area of responsibility immediately.
  4. 4. The evacuation signal sounds for 10 seconds.
  5. 5. The IC starts a PAR by division, beginning with the division most at risk.
  6. 6. Each division’s supervisor accounts for his assigned personnel and advises the IC. If there are no division supervisors, the IC assumes that responsibility.
  7. 7. Simultaneous with the evacuation signal and the PAR, the RIT proceeds to the division most at risk to prepare for rescue operations, if needed.
  8. 8. If anyone is not accounted for, the evacuation signal is repeated.

MAYDAY SOPs

I felt so strongly about helping to lower the LODD rate that I took it a step further and developed for my department three specific SOGs referring to Maydays. Since then, other Clark County fire departments have adopted them as well. During my research, I found that some small and large U.S. fire departments did not have any Mayday SOGs and that some of the departments that did have Mayday guidelines had guidelines that were vague, nonspecific, and inadequate. Furthermore, the majority of the fire departments with SOGs in place listed only three reasons to call a Mayday—being lost, disoriented, or trapped—and gave only the bare minimum of details in the SOG. That is not good enough for today’s firefighting.

Based on my five years of research, I determined that there are several reasons to call a Mayday for which it is necessary to have specific SOGs in place.

1. Camas Fire Department SOG “Mayday (When and How To Call)” (No. 2.2.12)

The purposes of this SOG are to identify the needs and the responsibilities of the downed firefighters calling a Mayday, to establish communications, to conduct tactical operations in the hazardous environment where the firefighters are, and to implement plans for an immediate rescue. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards define hazardous environments as those that include burning or collapsed structures, trenches, confined spaces, and hazardous materials or any other hazardous incident.

Prior to entering an immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) zone, the officer or person in charge of that team is to ensure the following:

  • Passport tags with team members’ names are given to the IC or their immediate supervisor working outside the structure.
  • Each member has a radio set to the proper working channel.
  • Each member’s PASS alarm is on and in good working order.
  • Each member/team has a tool.
  • Each member remains in contact via sight, sound, or touch at all times.
  • Each member knows his unit name and assignment (i.e., E-41, E-42B).

Calling a Mayday

When: Firefighters will call a Mayday for themselves or their crew members under the following conditions while operating in, on, or near a hazardous environment:

  • if they are lost, disoriented, trapped, caught in a flashover, caught in a backdraft, or entangled;
  • when a crew member is unaccounted for—i.e., if a crew member does not reply after the third time called, consider calling a Mayday;
  • if a crew member is injured, had a significant fall, or needs medical attention;
  • if there has been a critical equipment failure (SCBA, PPE, etc.), structural collapse;
  • if the low-air alarm sounds and one of the conditions mentioned above is present;
  • if a firefighter is out of air; or
  • in any other situation that causes a firefighter to feel that his life or team members’ lives are in serious danger and serious harm.

How: The downed firefighter will use his or a team member’s radio to call a Mayday by one of the following ways:

  • on the assigned “OPS” channel.
  • switch the radio to the Mayday channel (A-16, B-16, C-16). Rotate both knobs to the right (clockwise); this will ensure the volume is up and you are on the Mayday channel.
  • switch to “FIRE TAP.”
  • activate the orange emergency button (follow the antenna down to the button).

Once the downed firefighter is ready to transmit, he will verbally broadcast three Maydays over the radio followed by LUNAR (Location, Unit, Name, Air supply, Resources needed) or similar to LUNAR—i.e., “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is Firefighter Wilson from E-41B. I did a right-hand search on floor one on the alpha side. I’m low on air and entangled.” Refer to the SOG “The Downed Firefighter(s) Responsibilities” for further information on downed firefighters’ responsibilities.

2. Camas Fire Department SOG “The Downed Firefighters’ Responsibilities” (No. 2.2.10)

The SOG is intended to give firefighters “tools” they can use in their time of need; it can also be used as a training outline for techniques on which departments should focus. Does your department have a similar SOG? If not, modify this one to fit your department’s needs, and adopt it. If you do have one, how specific is it? Does it mention several ways to give downed firefighters a chance to get out alive? Can you pull this SOG out at a fire during a Mayday to assist you to fulfill the downed firefighters’ needs? Do you train like you fight?

When you must call a Mayday, you hope against hope that someone hears your transmission. The seconds that go by as you wait for an acknowledgment can feel like hours. Finally, you hear, “Emergency traffic, Emergency traffic: Go ahead with your Mayday!” You feel only an ounce of relief that you were heard and realize you are not out of trouble yet. Not everyone will hear your Mayday.

Some firefighters on the fireground will interrupt their assignments and run to your aid; others will continue their job unaware of the Mayday. Meanwhile, your ears are burning, your knees are sore, and the heat is penetrating through your personal protective equipment. You hear your air moving faster through the mask and regulator. You look around the room in zero visibility, hoping to find your partner and a way out. You frantically feel around the room to get your bearings, hoping you are near a wall, door, or window.

Minutes go by, and the heads-up display (HUD) in your mask continues to flash two yellow lights as your low-air alarm sounds. Soon one red flashing light will appear, and the low-air alarm will slowly stop ringing. What do you do now? Do you find your partner? How much time do you have before your air runs out? Do you know what your options are? How do you look for a way out? In this situation, it is so important to know basic self-survival techniques. The following examples illustrate the need for such SOPs:

  • In Tennessee in June 2003, a Mayday was called, and RIT was implemented. Two firefighters were saved after a partial roof collapse in a commercial building. At the same incident, two other firefighters died from thermal burns and thermal inhalation because they could not escape the building.2
  • To help lower the number of LODDs, some traditions should be put to rest and new traditions should be started for the safety of all of our firefighters. In September 1992, Mark Langvardt, a 16-year veteran of the Denver (CO) Fire Department, died in the line of duty after becoming trapped in a confined space. He was battling a third-alarm structure fire. It took more than 50 minutes to retrieve his body from the building. Prior to his collapse because of depleted oxygen, he had enough air to escape but was unable to because at that time no firefighter basic self-survival techniques or specialized training were being taught on a regular basis. Around the same year, basic self-survival was born. With the loss of one of Denver Fire Department’s bravest, the department devised the Denver Drill. This technique employs a team of firefighters that climbs through a window into a confined space and pulls the unconscious firefighter out of the window and hands him off to the rescuers standing outside the structure. From that day forward, more self-survival techniques began gaining in popularity, among them wall breaches and window bails.
  • Two firefighters were saved when they bailed onto a ladder from a second-story residential window in Minneapolis in June 2007. In February 2006, five Toronto, Canada, firefighters saved their lives during a three-alarm fire. They were forced to bail onto a ladder while trapped in a second-story bedroom.
  • In New York in January 2005, six firefighters were forced to jump out of a window of a four-plus-story structure because of fire spread. Two firefighters died as a result of multiple system traumas from the fall, and two other firefighters suffered nonfatal but severe injuries from the fall. The final two of the six firefighters used a personal rope system to lower themselves closer to the ground, causing them to suffer less trauma.3

In the self-survival classes I have attended, attendees were asked, “How many of your departments teach self-survival techniques?” With each subsequent class I attended, more and more firefighters raised their hands. I ask this question when I teach my Firefighter Safety and Survival class. Consistently, attendees tell me their departments do not train or have SOGs on what a downed firefighter should do.

The objective of SOP No. 2.2.10 is to have the downed firefighters stay calm, stay together, conserve air, and do everything and anything to get themselves and their team out alive after calling a Mayday.

After calling a Mayday, the downed firefighters are to conduct a team roll call, if possible (to ensure your team is intact; if not inform Command). The key here is to remain calm, stay together, and save air while attempting the following actions.

1 Turn on all flashlights, if possible. Point them toward the ceiling to distribute light (spotlight effect), or turn them off and on (strobe light effect). Lie prone near a wall if unable to escape.

2 Try to get heard. Use your radio. [Refer to the SOG: “MAYDAY, When and how to call” for more information.]

3 Activate all members’ PASS alarms. The PASS alarm should be silenced only in the following circumstances:

  • Temporarily turn it off when it interferes with radio or verbal communications.
  • The RIT team will silence the PASS alarms to acknowledge your location.
  • Intermittently silence the alarm when instructed by RIT or incident command because the alarm is interfering with operations—the noise is echoing in large rooms, for example.

4 Try tapping. The downed firefighters slowly tap three times as loudly as possible (SOS). RIT slowly taps two times as loudly as possible to search and/or acknowledge the location of the downed firefighters. This technique is called “a double tap 360.” The RIT or other RIT crews do a 360° walk-around the building, pounding on the exterior walls every few feet to help locate the downed firefighters to a more specific location.

5 Attempt to find a wall you can breach, a window from which you can bail, or a door from which to exit. Inform Command of your location and status.

6 Find a hose (forward lay). If possible, locate a hose and follow it out, or drag the hose around to find a wall, a door, or a window for quicker escape (female coupling leads to the engine, male coupling leads to the nozzle). Inform the IC of your location and status. Slide down the hose, if appropriate.

7 If possible, breach the floor. If successful, use rope, hose, or webbing and a tool to descend to a safe refuge area. Inform Command of your location and status.

8 If possible, breach a wall to escape deteriorating conditions and enter a safe refuge area. Inform Command of your location and status.

9 If possible, use a rope bag and a tool, a piece of furniture, or close the door with rope in the jamb (as an anchor) to rappel out the window to a safe refuge area. Inform the IC of your location and status.

10 If possible, locate a window with a ladder (bail out feet or head first). Inform Command of your location and status.

11 If possible find a window, place one leg and one arm inside the window (as an anchor), and hang out the window over the sill. Inform Command of your location and status.

12 If possible, find a window, use your SCBA as an anchor in the lower corner of the window, and hang out the window. Inform Command of your location and status.

The SOG gives a basic description of how the methods of escape are performed. Your department needs to have a full detailed outline of these maneuvers for hands-on training and should train on them regularly. Some firefighters and officers may not approve of some of the techniques; however, all firefighters need to train on as many safety survival techniques as possible.

3. SOP: “Command’s Responsibility During a Mayday” (No. 2.2.13)

Our department next focused on an SOG that works as a guideline, a training outline, and a checklist that can be used on the scene of a Mayday.

Let’s say that you, as Command, arrive on-scene to find a large two-story residential structure with heavy fire coming from the Charlie side. It is believed that a family is inside. You and your crew do everything by the book and fight like you have trained. The incident seems to be going well, but, as one of Murphy’s Law states, “If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.”

Then it happens. You hear a frantic voice over the radio yelling, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! I’m lost and cannot find my way out!” You can barely make out the cry for help with radios squelching, other radio transmissions, and the equipment running in the background. You can’t believe what you just heard. You say cautiously, “Last unit, repeat your last.” Seconds go by, and another crew member repeats the Mayday. Now what will you do? Do you have a checklist you can pull out and use to start the rescue? How will you manage this Mayday? How will you direct your teams? Can you handle all the radio traffic that is about to come in? Where do you start? There are so many questions and actions that need to be answered and implemented immediately, and time will not slow down for you or the downed firefighters. Operations will need to happen without delay. We know Maydays happen, but we hope they will never happen in our department.

I cannot imagine how the members of the Prince William County (VA) Department of Fire and Rescue felt in April 2007 when Kyle Wilson and his partner called a Mayday to save Firefighter Wilson. Wilson could not be rescued, however, because of a collapse and rapid fire spread. According to the fire department, it was the first LODD the department had had in 41 years.4

Unfortunately, this is one of several stories that ended in tragedy on the fireground.

The goal of SOG No. 2.2.13. is to have the IC formulate and execute a systematic rescue plan at a scene where a Mayday has been called to do the following:

  • rescue the downed firefighters,
  • prevent further fire spread to the downed firefighters,
  • prevent further harm to the downed firefighters, and
  • ensure that scene safety is not compromised during the rescue operation.

The IC post will monitor four radio channels when a Mayday is declared:

1. the assigned “Ops” channel (A3=OPS40, A4=OPS41, A5=OPS42, A6=OPS43).
2. the “Fire Tap” channel (A1 and/or B1).
3. the “Fire Com” channel.
4. the “MAYDAY” channel (A16, B16 and/or C16).

IC’s Responsibilities

The IC’s responsibilities include the following:

  • Acknowledge the Mayday.
  • Clear the channel, and switch all other units to another frequency.
  • Conduct LUNAR checklist (Location, Unit, Name, Air, Resources).
  • Activate RIT to last known location.
  • Assign other RIT.
  • Inform dispatch of Mayday, and call for additional alarms (via radio or cell phone—insert number).
  • Assign a Rescue Group supervisor.
  • Change fireground operations to benefit the downed firefighters.
  • Conduct a roll call/PAR.
  • Assign an aide for Command/IC.
  • Consider risk vs. benefit of all fireground operations.

• • •

We need to have a plan for Mayday situations—and, more importantly, we must train on it. We must train as we fight. Make the training challenging and realistic so you will be prepared for the worst-case scenario. During a Mayday, everyone from the downed firefighters to the IC has responsibilities that have to be carried out. So, train that way. Make sure all firefighters, paid and volunteer, are being trained consistently so they have the confidence, courage, ability, and knowledge to get the job done right the first time, because we have only one shot at it when a Mayday is called.

Endnotes

1. A copy of this SOG and the others mentioned in this article can be obtained by e-mailing me at kwilson@ci.camas.wa.us/.

2. The entire NIOSH report is at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200318.html/.

3. The full report is at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200503.html/.

4. The full report is at www.pwcgov.org/vpresentations/fnr/LODDReportFactSheet.pdf/.

KEVIN “WILLY” WILSON, a 14-year veteran of the fire service, has been a firefighter/paramedic with the Camas (WA) Fire Department since 2002. Previously, he was a volunteer firefighter for the Gladstone (OR) Fire Department; a U.S. Navy shipboard firefighter (Norfolk, Virginia); a U.S. Navy fire marshal/paramedic (Camp David Presidential Retreat); and a volunteer firefighter with the Independent Hose Company in Frederick, Maryland. He is a firefighter safety survival instructor, a hazmat technician, and a paramedic.

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