Control, Command, and Communicate to Manage the Mayday

Fairfax County firefighters respond to a 2018 apartment fire
Photo courtesy Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue

To overcome complacency, incident commanders must anticipate firefighters calling the Mayday

On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 made a memorable emergency landing in the Hudson River in New York after a bird strike caused an engine failure. The “Miracle on the Hudson” spotlighted the flight crew’s heroic actions that successfully mitigated this emergency. Because of their rapid, precise actions, they achieved a remarkable landing in the freezing waters of the Hudson with no fatalities. The keys to success included hours of training, experience, a calm demeanor, and the crew’s knowledge. Additionally, following the airline industry’s long-established emergency procedures, the crew quickly recognized the emergency, determined the specific actions to take, and executed the plan as a team.

These emergency response procedures, unfortunately, evolved from disasters in which airline crews and civilians perished. They culminated in the Quick Response Handbook (QRH), which became the mandated process to mitigate aircraft emergencies. The QRH covers a wide spectrum of emergencies and requires each team member to be disciplined in his role. The pilot must continue operating the aircraft undistracted from any of the “noise” occurring in the cockpit. The co-pilot reviews the QRH and begins working through the list of emergency procedures to mitigate the event. This process removes the egos associated with the hierarchical positions and focuses on the teamwork needed to mitigate the incident.

Aviate-Navigate-Communicate

Much like the fire service, the airline industry is fond of using (perhaps overusing) acronyms, mnemonics, and mantras to assist students in learning and recalling processes in times of chaos. For an in-flight emergency, the airline industry teaches the team the sequence “Aviate-Navigate-Communicate,” which broadly outlines the order of actions to take to mitigate the emergency. Successful mitigation requires flying the plane, identifying and navigating to a safe landing area, and communicating the plan to all involved.

Aviate. Keep flying the plane! While an emergency is in progress, the pilot must remember that all aboard are in a large metal tube that is defying gravity. If this fact is forgotten, the aircraft will succumb to the pull of the earth and all will meet their demise. The pilot flies the plane while the co-pilots focus on identifying the problem and start working through the checklist in the QRH.

Navigate. Determine where you are right now while maintaining your situational awareness. Next, determine where you want to go, which may include identifying the nearest airport or other safe area to land the aircraft.

Communicate. Once the pilot has identified an emergency, he must now communicate this to the air traffic controller (ATC) by transmitting a Mayday, which notifies the ATC that the aircraft needs assistance. This can encompass identifying needs such as a safe landing area, a clear runway or airspace, and so forth. Once an emergency mitigation plan is complete, the pilot must communicate it to the crew and the passengers, including sharing any actions they need to take (e.g., “brace for impact”).

Fire Service Application

For the fire service, it would be shortsighted not to examine and use these proven practices in mitigating emergencies in chaotic environments. Checklists have been shown to work in a myriad of professions and inspired a best-selling book, Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gwande, who applied this principle to the medical field to reduce the number of unnecessary fatalities. As a result, the number of deaths was significantly reduced. A thorough yet simple checklist is necessary to ensure that all team members know the mission and their roles so that they can quickly and accurately assess any issues that arise to develop a solution.

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The QRH outlines many different emergencies and a comprehensive checklist for each situation that may occur in-flight. No pilot, regardless of his skill, could quickly recall how to mitigate a multitude of unfamiliar emergencies in the middle of a chaotic event. The fire service incident commander (IC) faces the same challenge with a complex and dynamic incident scene. The emergency may be a withdrawal from an area, the evacuation of an entire structure because of impending collapse, or a Mayday.

Fire always gets a vote and routinely does not comply with our best-laid plans or operational manuals. We must be adaptable, resilient, and prepared for when this occurs on the fireground. The stress and chaos of the Mayday will predictably start the stress response in the IC, including tunnel vision and auditory exclusion. These physiological responses are not unexpected; the military, medical, airline, and other industries have examined these for many years. Properly implementing a checklist along with a teamwork approach to incident command could be the stimulus that gives the IC a tactical reset and potentially alters the outcome.

Control-Command-Communicate

This airline industry safety program is a proven model for success; with some minor alterations, we can apply it to the fire service. We can adapt the Aviate-Navigate-Communicate sequence to fire service incident command as Control-Command-Communicate to reduce the IC’s stress and enable him to refocus on identifying and mitigating the Mayday.

Control. Take control of the situation that is unfolding in front of you despite how chaotic and disorienting it can be. Just as the pilot’s first step is to continue to fly the plane, the IC’s is to maintain the firefight while gathering information about the Mayday and developing the mitigation plan. Maintaining control gives us the best chance to reduce the immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) hazard—the fire.

Most fireground Maydays result from the fire or its by-product, smoke. Yet, we continue to require our rapid intervention teams (RITs) to bring the equivalent of a rescue company to the front of the building. Ultimately, a hoseline is what is needed to put out the fire and air for the Mayday firefighter. How many Maydays have we observed in which the IC’s initial response was to evacuate the building? One of our own has communicated a Mayday and the initial action is for everyone to leave that person in the IDLH. The proper response is to take control of the chaotic event and communicate to maintain the firefight! Again, the first step in successfully eliminating the Mayday situation is to remove the hazard.

The pilot could easily go back into the aircraft’s cabin and attempt the fix the electrical issue causing the Mayday. If he does, the plane will surely go careening into a mountain or a field. The pilot must continue to fly the plane; likewise, the IC must take control of the spiraling fireground and not lose focus on maintaining the firefight.

Command. The fireground’s stress level will escalate dramatically on the receipt of a Mayday across the tactical fireground channel, accentuating any gaps, errors, or mistakes we have made or ignored on the fireground prior to the Mayday. For instance, if we have poor accountability from the incident’s start, it will only be compounded after the Mayday as the IC attempts to account for personnel in the IDLH. Poor or uncoordinated tactics will be exposed and, since the fire always gets a vote, it will undoubtedly only get worse.

On receipt of a Mayday, the IC must demonstrate a strong command of the incident. This means the entire incident, including the Mayday and the ongoing firefight. Taking command of the chaotic situation should include the following:

  • Acknowledge the Mayday.
  • Determine the problem underlying the Mayday.
  • Ensure the overall strategy is clear (offensive vs. defensive) and that proper tactics are being implemented. This is not the time to have a fireground where everyone is unsure of what mode they are in, there are opposing hoselines, and we are unsure where the seat of the fire is. These all are bad and must be brought under control now!
  • Account for not only the Mayday firefighter but the rest of his crew. Follow up with an accounting for all personnel in the IDLH. Many times, a Mayday is mitigated by companies operating near the Mayday firefighter. If you have poor accountability and have no idea where anyone is prior to the Mayday, you are on the road to a disaster. Conversely, if you have excellent accountability and can communicate with the Mayday firefighter, you have the opportunity to alert companies in the area to assist.
  • Develop the Mayday mitigation plan. This may include getting the Mayday firefighter out of the structure or addressing his needs and eliminating the hazard—the fire. This should include direct communication with companies near the Mayday firefighter; efficient, quick RIT deployment to the Mayday firefighter; and evaluation of your strategy and tactics to ensure you are effectively maintaining the firefight.

Communicate. Once the Mayday is received, a multitude of tasks must be rapidly and precisely completed—a tall task indeed.

  • A general announcement (GA) of the Mayday: where it occurred, who it involves, and what actions you have taken.
  • Notify dispatch that you need additional resources. This can include emergency medical services (EMS) for the Mayday firefighter, EMS for personnel who will risk a lot to save one of our own, and the resources to replace those currently fighting the fire. We must account for the reflex time for getting more resources to the fireground so that the firefight is continuous, especially when one of our own is trapped. This step demonstrates the importance of an IC having an aide at the command post. The IC must focus on the fireground and not be distracted with the incident’s resource status and talking with the dispatch center. An aide on a separate channel with dispatch can handle this, which will remove unnecessary radio traffic from the fireground operation.
  • Communicate your plan to your command team. Your aides should know exactly what your plan is so they know how to support it. Requesting additional resources, positioning resources for future plans, and offering a second review of your plan is essential. If you don’t have a command team, build it out. Adding resources to the command post is often overlooked, but it is clear from past line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) and close calls that placing the overwhelming responsibilities of a Mayday event on one person is a mistake. This command team can be more than an aide—perhaps another chief officer who shares your operational view and can be a sounding board to vet ideas and offer perspective.
  • Communicate your plan to the units on the fireground. Clear, concise, and succinct communication on the fireground is paramount. You cannot expect any level of compliance if people have no idea what you expect. For example,
    • “All units on the fireground, we have a Mayday on the second floor in Alpha quadrant. All units maintain the firefight. The RIT has been deployed for FF Smith from Truck 2, who is disoriented. Stand by for a personnel accountability report and maintain strict radio discipline.”

A Mayday is by far the most emotionally challenging event for the IC. Since a Mayday does not occur often, complacency sets in and the level of unpreparedness when the moment occurs can cripple the IC. To overcome this, our operational mindset must always expect that the fire will ignore our plan and our personnel will call a Mayday. We can then focus on our strategy and tactics to effectively mitigate the Mayday.

Fortunately, with the examples cited above, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. We must learn about the lessons learned from fire service LODDs and close calls. Coupling that with the successful examples from other fields, we can begin to build a program for success. The combat-ready mindset, implementing lessons learned from previous LODDs/close calls, and mitigation tools such as a checklist all prepare us to face the challenges of a Mayday.


Dan Shaw, a member of the fire service since 1992, is a deputy chief with the Fairfax County (VA) Fire & Rescue Department and vice president of Traditions Training. He is the co-author of 25 to Survive: Reducing Residential Injury and LODD (Fire Engineering, 2013).

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