You’ve Received a Mayday—Now What?

By Joe McClelland

In recent months, there has been an increase of Maydays and firefighters trapped in collapse. My friends and acquaintances that have been in command of a rescue situation at an emergency scene or directly involved in the rescue/removal of a trapped or lost firefighter always always have the same response:  “That was the toughest thing I ever had to do!”

At the firefighter level, you pretty much go into a remote mode and do what you train on: getting the missing victim. But how often does command get out and train on the chaos of a missing or trapped firefighter? It can get pretty hectic in that buggy.

There are some very good training videos and audio accounts of these situations as well as some not-so-good ones. I am not downplaying anyone’s response to this type of emergency, but the first time a command or supervisory level officer is confronted with this emergency should not be the first time he is confronted with this situation. In other words, if you have the chance of being in charge of a situation where a firefighter or firefighter’s life may hang on how you respond mentally and tactically to his emergency, you MUST get out and train on it.

The following outline is nothing most of us haven’t seen before; it’s an account of some good information and ideas I have come across over the years. But, I feel a refresher every now and then is a good thing, especially when lives depend on your actions…or inactions.



This procedure identifies individual, company, and command level activities for the search and rescue of lost or trapped firefighters.

The rescue of trapped or lost firefighters in a burning building is especially time sensitive. There is a very narrow “window of survivability” for a firefighter who is out of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) air supply or trapped by approaching fire. Individual firefighters must not delay reporting to command if they become lost, trapped or in need of assistance. Company officers must not delay the reporting of lost firefighters or inability to complete accountability reports. Command and division/group officers must always assume that the missing firefighter is lost in the building until the firefighter can be accounted for. Command must also restructure the strategy and action plan to include a priority rescue effort.


Lost or Trapped Firefighters

Rescue generally falls into two categories: The firefighter (or firefighters) is trapped by a collapse or he is lost in a smoke-filled and burning building. The most significant problem and difference between the two categories is that the search area can be substantially larger for a lost firefighter than that encountered in a collapse situation. On the other hand, a collapse presents a major extrication situation. In some cases, lost or trapped firefighters may be able to radio to command that they are lost and in need of rescue prior to being incapacitated when the SCBA goes empty. Other problems may include a possible secondary collapse and crews that are separated, scattered, and confusion of the last known location of the crew (or member).


Mayday–Emergency Traffic

The Mayday radio message should be used by lost or trapped firefighters to report their status as being in trouble and needing rescue. Any member may use a Mayday to report a lost firefighter. Any report of a Mayday will receive priority radio traffic. The term “Mayday” should be reserved only to report lost or trapped firefighters. Command will then run the Mayday on the channel on which it was called and move all firefighting operations to a separate channel. And, when possible, have another officer take over the firefighting operations. Use the term “emergency traffic” to report other emergencies needing special attention. Immediately on a report of a missing or trapped firefighter, “emergency traffic” will be sounded to alert all personnel working on the fireground of the situation and to stop all radio traffic unless something is of dire importance.


Command’s Response to a Missing Firefighter

The incident commander (IC) must always assume that the missing firefighter is lost or trapped in the building until the firefighter is accounted for. Rapid, concise decisions and actions must be taken to increase survivability.

Following is a list of actions command must take for a reported missing or trapped firefighter. These are guidelines and do not necessarily need to be accomplished in the order listed. The first five must be accomplished very rapidly.

Change your tactics to a high-priority rescue effort. The IC must restructure the plan to include a high-priority firefighter rescue effort. A rapid, well thought-out rescue plan must be developed and the command organization expanded. The plan and objectives must be communicated to other command staff and division/group officers for implementation.

Immediately request additional alarms. Immediately request at least one additional alarm, including a medic component; this should be built in to your dispatch center. On receiving a Mayday, dispatch automatically tones out the next level fire box and possible emergency medical services (EMS) box. If not needed, or the Mayday is secured quickly, you can always send the responding units home. Additional multiple alarms may be requested based on circumstances and potential. Implement Level 2 staging. Early on, consider heavy equipment resources and heavy technical rescue (HTR) assistance for structural collapses.

Fireground accountability/personnel accountability report (PAR). All companies operating on the fireground must immediately request a PAR. This is especially important for structural collapses. Command cannot develop an effective rescue plan until accurate information is available on the number of missing firefighters, their identity and last reported work area, and which companies are affected.

Deploy the rapid intervention team (RIT). Command will immediately send the RIT(s) to the most appropriate location to initiate search and rescue efforts (typically the last reported work area). Designate the RIT as “rescue group” and coordinate activities at that location. Also, commit additional available resources in staging to the rescue efforts. Command must not hesitate here; the RIT may have already self-deployed, but if it has not, command should make the call to activate it immediately.

Withdraw companies from the affected area. In some situations such as collapse, crew members can get separated. The only practical method to obtain an accurate roll call for a PAR may be to withdraw crews to the exterior. Withdrawal is a judgment call based on circumstances at the time, information available, and resources. It may not be practical or possible to do, however, the absolute need for an accurate roll call (PAR) and information on missing firefighters remains a critical priority.

Do not abandon firefighting positions and provide reinforcement. When necessary, avoid abandoning firefighting positions during the rescue effort. Command and crews should take aggressive measures to protect trapped or missing firefighters from the effects of the fire. Concentrate efforts on reinforcing existing positions, keeping the fire out of the rescue area and providing appropriate ventilation and lighting. In some situations, it may be appropriate to write off some areas of the building to relocate companies and crews to better protect the rescue effort.

Assign chief officer to the rescue group. A chief officer is needed to direct the rescue group and rescue operations. Depending on the size of the rescue area and the complexity of operations, you may need more than one chief officer to fill additional support positions or divisions/groups. The division/group officer will assign specific areas or grids of the building to each rescue team (company) to conduct searches before entering the building. Closely coordinate search efforts between divisions/groups, and keep command infomed.

Assign a safety sector/officer. Rescue operations are high risk. The rescue operation may be taking place in a postcollapse environment, or a flashover may have occurred. Emotions may be high, and firefighters will tend to want to freelance and take chances. You must implement a safety group in the affected area to help control the risk taking. An available chief officer should assume this group as soon as possible. Other safety group responsibilities include conducting a hazards assessment, thus allowing time for the rescue group officer to concentrate on the critical rescue effort. These group officers must work hand-in-hand to ensure that a safe and effective rescue operation is conducted.

Expand the command organization. With additional resources en route along with the critical rescue needs, the command organization must expand ahead of the demand. The incident may eventually escalate to a Branch level operation. The IC must be proactive and aggressive in developing and expanding the command organization.

Special call chief officers. Additional chief officers are needed to fill key divisions/groups and command team positions. Command should special call additional chief officers and initiate a callback of off-duty chief officers or up its current box alarm level to get more officers on scene as needed.

Establish early treatment and transport groups. The IC must have in position treatment personnel to immediately treat any rescued firefighters. The transportation group must also be in place and coordinating activities with the treatment group officer. This should be done with EMS personnel. Contact area hospitals to inform them of potential victims and types of injury; i.e. burn or crush, so they can recall needed doctors or surgeons.

Open/unlock all doors if appropriate. Unlock or force open all doors in the immediate and, at least, the immediate interior area quickly searched. In most cases, the doors should be left open to provide an emergency escape route, unless doing so will have negative effects on the firefight. In all cases, the doors must remain unlocked. When possible, give this task to one or two companies under supervision of an officer. You can’t have firefighters acting as wrecking crews and breaking open everything in sight; it may create an adverse effect on the rescue effort and do more damage than good.

Ventilate to maintain tenability/lighting. Reducing smoke conditions through effective ventilation improves the air quality for any victims and will enhance search and rescue capabilities through increased visibility of the interior. Beware of flow path disturbance or negatively affecting rescue operations with poor vent tactics. Do NOT allow freelancing. I have been asked if positive pressure ventilation (PPV) fans should be used here; my answer, situation specific, is no. Introducing high pressures and volumes of air into a structure will/can cause the fire to grow exponentially. And, if the fire were in a smoldering phase, the PPV fan may cause it to “light up,” thus creating another hazard for the rescuers. So in my opinion, no, it should not be used.

Coordinate and control the search effort. The IC must ensure that a complete, coordinated, and controlled search is conducted. Close coordination of all search efforts is a must to eliminate duplicate searches that waste time. All areas must be thoroughly searched.

RIT/SCBA rescue. Each rescue team should enter the building with an additional SCBA for each reported lost/trapped firefighter. Missing firefighters may have exhausted their SCBA air supply or may be trapped and cannot be quickly extricated. In each case, the firefighter must be provided “clean” air to increase survivability. Remember, we do things in pairs, so if one firefighter is down, expect at least one other victim to be down as well.

RIT standbys. Because of the high-risk nature of rescue operations, command must establish another RIT to protect rescue crews. The RIT should stand by at a location near the rescue operation. More than one RIT may be needed.

HTR teams. Request HTR teams and other specialized equipment at all structural collapses that have trapped firefighters. Your dispatch center must keep an updated list of cranes, heavy lift tow trucks, lumber yards, or home centers available for contact as soon as you request them. This isn’t the time to be walking through the yellow pages.

Watch for the building’s structural stability. All personnel must watch the structural stability of the building throughout the rescue effort where a structural collapse has occurred or the fire or other event has compromised the structural integrity of the building. If this is a large, prolonged incident, call your local urban search and rescue team or combined agency response team to respond with their equipment for monitoring structure shift or movement.

Ensure strong supervision. Strong supervision and control will be required from all officers. Emotions will run very high. Firefighters in this situation will tend to want to freelance or take a higher risk. Restrict the treatment of personnel to those actually in need. Crowd control of your nonessential personnel may be required.

Ensure media control. Command may need to control the media early and throughout the incident. Restrict information on the identities and conditions of lost firefighters until  after next of kin are notified. Also, restrict media film crews to areas that are safe and at a distance that will prevent visual/facial identification of any victims.

Ensure that dispatch monitors all radio channels. Command must ensure that dispatch monitors all radio channels. If a lost firefighter declares an emergency on a channel other than the fireground tactical channel, command must be immediately directed to the lost firefighter’s channel for direct communications

When searching for a lost member, rescue crews should consider the following:

  • Visible sighting of trapped firefighters such as arms or legs.
  • Knowledge of his last known location.
  • The sound of the personal alarm safety system device’s audible tones.
  • Shouts for help from the collapsed area.
  • Tapping noise, and so on.
  • Sounds of portable radio broadcast in the collapse area.
  • Breathing and moaning sounds.
  • The sound of the SCBA bell sounding.
  • Radio request for help from portable radios from within the collapse area.
  • Tracing attack hoselines into the collapse area.
  • Tracing of lifelines into the area.
  • Evidence of building structures or locations that were described by lost firefighters.
  • Flashlight beams.
  • The location of ladders, fans, lights, or other equipment being used by missing firefighters.
  • Opening or unlocking all doors.
  • Searching hallways before interior rooms.
  • Searching exterior walls (interior sides) before searching interior spaces.
  • Searching large interior spaces in a detailed grid pattern.
  • Ensuring all areas are searched.
  • Take one SCBA for each lost firefighter in the search area.
  • Use of lifelines when searching “off hoseline” to ensure safety of rescuers.


A safety checklist for Maydays involving a lost or trapped firefighter should include the following:

  • Emergency traffic.
  • Change the plan to high priority rescue effort.
  • Request additional alarms.
  • Conduct a PAR and withdraw crews, if needed.
  • Deploy RIT and assign a rescue group.
  • Don’t abandon firefighting positions.
  • Provide reinforcement to firefighting efforts.
  • Assign chief officer to rescue group.
  • Assign safety group.
  • Expand command organization.
  • Special call chief officers.
  • Establish treatment and transport groups.
  • Open/unlock all doors.
  • Ventilate maintain tenability.
  • Provide lighting.
  • Coordinate and control search and rescue efforts.
  • Assess need for heavy technical rescue teams.
  • Monitor structural stability of building, call for structural engineer.
  • Media control/Public information officer.
  • Dispatch to monitor all radio frequencies.


All subjects covered here will surely overwhelm the IC. This is why a call for help of other command officers is a must. The rescue may be very quick and simple, but the IC must take a worst-case thought process on the rescue until proven otherwise. The best way to prepare for a situation like this is to train on it. All levels need to get on the training ground and practice the steps.  

The moment the Mayday comes is not the time to wish you trained for it. Let’s do all we can do to help ensure we do not end up on a sticker or a T-shirt because of a lack of preparation or training.

Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of David Holt.


Joe McClelland is a 21-year veteran of the fire service, the last 15 with the Midlothian (IL) Fire Department. McClelland is also an instructor for the Illinois Fire Service Institute where he teaches firefighting, rescue, RIT, and truck company classes.


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