By Stephen Marsar
If you are a chief or a company officer who may find yourself in the position of an incident commander (IC), you must be prepared to handle the most extreme of incidents—a firefighter Mayday—right out of the gate.
According to Don Abbott’s Project Mayday, only 23 percent of all ICs who faced a Mayday incident had received prior training in handling it. Thus, ICs or anyone who could become an IC must participate in Mayday drills with their responding crews. A drill should incorporate all aspects of the Mayday [e.g., first-arriving units, rapid intervention teams (RITs), technical rescue] including the top of the pyramid, the IC.
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Maydays: The Basics
Most Maydays occur within the first 10 to 20 minutes of the first unit’s arrival, almost half of them before the arrival/formation of a RIT; and 90 percent had only one chief officer on the scene at the time. Mayday scenarios may include firefighters who are missing, lost, trapped, unconscious, suffering a serious life-threatening injury; or structural collapse; or the need for the IC to take control of radio traffic.
Mayday scenario training for chiefs and company officers should be part of their formal training. However, individuals who will or may operate as ICs must also constantly train and adopt a “Black Sky”/worst-case/what-if mentality and regularly challenge themselves in how to react to the dreaded Mayday. This is not a pessimistic view of our world but the posture of an efficient IC who is just as prepared for a Mayday as for any other emergency. As an IC, the first time you hear a Mayday shouldn’t be the real thing! According to the Project Mayday 2018, “ICs should not view Maydays as a possibility, but as a probability.”1-2
Instead of waiting for the establishment of formal training or before or after attending a program, you can use a plethora of resources to hone these valuable, life-altering skills. They include department “Pass It On” or ”Close Call” programs, department safety reports/reviews, fire service publications, Internet video resources, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter Fatality reports, FirefighterCloseCalls.com, and Project Mayday. Or, you can reach out to firefighters/officers/ICs who have experienced a Mayday.
Whether using videos or audio recordings of Maydays and fire scenes where Maydays did not occur, you can put yourself in the position of the IC and go through the Mayday or fire scenarios and plan on how you might handle them. Having a Mayday Checklist (see sidebar), like the example provided here, may be a great asset.
Cues and Clues That All Is Not Going Well
Although the fire service offers many mnemonics and acronyms as memory aids, I am not providing any here. They may be a great way of learning and memorizing information, but making a memorable acronym sometimes means placing the letters (tasks) out of their priority order.
Instead, I’ve assembled a list of items that should pique the IC’s interest and raise suspicions that things may not be going as well as they should. These items come from firsthand experiences, senior ICs’ advice, and listening and watching scores of recent fires and Maydays through the outlets described earlier. Following each transmission are thoughts that should be coming to the IC’s mind.
Early reports such as, “It smells like food,” “Nothing showing,” “Try for a callback,” and so forth are routine transmissions as initial searches are performed. However, the absence of such transmissions could mean that units are so engaged and so focused on their jobs that they may have forgotten to make preliminary reports.
- “Heavy fire over our heads throughout the truss space.” A multitude of concerns arise with this transmission; the IC should seriously consider immediate withdrawal.
- “Zero visibility; how does it look from the outside?” Does the crew have a charged hoseline? Are the hoselines operating? Are the hoselines near the reporting member? As the IC, have I kept the interior crews informed of changing conditions on the outside?
- “We have heavy smoke and high heat but no visible fire.” Have we checked the basement? Does the reporting crew have a thermal imaging camera? Are charged hoselines in place and ready to advance?
- “We have heavy smoke and little or no heat.” Where might we have hidden fire?
- “Just a few minutes and we’ll have this.” Depending on other circumstances and the total picture of the scene, is this possible? Or, is fire blowing out from several windows other than the “one room we’re going to knock down”? The IC must update the crew that is reporting on the real situation—i.e., the bigger picture.
- Conflicting reports: “Heavy fire on the roof” and “Little to no visible fire on the floor below.” The IC must look at these contradictory reports and decide where there may be hidden fire and who is best positioned to attack it or who may be in the most vulnerable position if the fire breaks out.
- “We’re splitting our crew.” The IC must consider the initial size of the crew and if splitting the crew means members will be operating alone or in remote areas out of the immediate supervision of their officer. Perhaps the officer or IC can track the member operating remotely and under functional supervision, but whenever possible, do not allow freelancing or members to operate alone. Do we require more resources? If so, did we call for them to avoid splitting up crews?
As an IC or a potential IC, you can and should exercise your mind at least as much as you physically exercise your body. Practice improving your command presence and experience on each emergency response. At working structural fires and serious emergencies, expect a Mayday; hopefully, you will never be surprised or blindsided if one occurs. A Mayday is the most stressful situation for an IC. ICs and those who may find themselves in that position should practice handling Maydays in their minds and during drills and formal training. Prepare for the worst; enjoy the rest.
Stephen Marsar, MA, EFO, CIC, is a 29-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and a battalion chief in Battalion 6. He served as chief and commissioner of the Bellmore (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. Marsar’s certifications include National Incident Safety Officer; FDNY IMT—Type 1 unit leader; National and New York State Fire Instructor level II; and Department of Health regional faculty member. A two-time winner of the Federal Emergency Management Agency National Outstanding Research Award, he is an adjunct professor at Nassau Community College and a chief instructor for the FDNY and Nassau County Fire Service and EMS academies. He is an advisory board member of Fire Engineering and JEMS.