Five Skills to Practice Before Your Mayday

By David DeStefano

Scenario: On arrival at the fireground, a large three-story taxpayer, your company is ordered to perform a primary search on the floor above the fire. You and the two other firefighters assigned to perform this task approach the rear entrance that will provide access to all floors. According to radio reports, the first-in engine is making an aggressive attack on a large body of fire on the first floor. A backup line is being stretched to support the attack, and the third-due engine has just arrived and will stretch a line to the floor above.

The incident commander (IC) has informed the companies on the first floor that your team will be operating above them. As you begin your search from the rear stairwell and into a large apartment, you find that heat and smoke has banked down. You wonder if fire has extended to this floor. The company officer transmits a situational report to command; he details your location, the conditions you have encountered while searching, and requests that the line be stretched immediately. Your company pauses briefly to maintain orientation; check air supply; and listen for audible signs of victims, fire spread, and other firefighting activity nearby, outside, or on the roof.

Just as you begin to move down the short hallway that typically leads to the bedrooms in these occupancies, the ceiling behind your team opens up and drops a blanket of heat, smoke, and fire along with chunks of plaster. The fire has ripped through the balloon frame construction of the old building and blocked your original access point.

Five basic skills you have practiced in training are about to pay life-saving dividends as your company smoothly reacts to a life-threatening situation.

  1. Air management. Your company followed the rules of air management during your search and has not proceeded past the limitations of its air supply. Each member still has air left in his self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and no low-air alarms have sounded.
  2. Orientation pause. During the search, you stopped for a few seconds and held your breath to quiet your SCBA face piece. During this pause, you assessed your location, air supply, and means of egress as well as noted audible clues to your surroundings or potential victims.
  3. “Sit-rep.” When conditions were not as expected, your company officer immediately transmitted a situational report using the LCAN (location, conditions, actions, needs) format. This timely, brief, and well-formatted report advised the IC of your exact present location and the conditions in that area as well as the fact that your primary search was still underway and you needed a hoseline for immediate support.
  4. District familiarization. The time spent working in your district has been put to good use; members of the company became familiar with common types of occupancies and their construction and general layout. This information may prove invaluable during primary search operations as well as incidents where members need to find an alternate means of egress or seek shelter.
  5. Mayday message. Your company officer and all members of the unit are well versed in the format of the Mayday transmission. The ability to report your location, status, air supply, and special rescue needs in a calm and accurate radio message will increase the chance of a successful rescue.

Using the fundamentals discussed above, command had a good handle on your location and the deteriorating conditions. The line to the floor above was in the process of being expedited. The company officer immediately transmitted a Mayday when your egress became blocked and you had no handline. However, with your knowledge of typical occupancies in your district, members were quite confident that the bedroom off the hallway that you were in should contain a fire escape. Members of the unit entered the room, closed the door behind them to isolate your location from the fire, and quickly found a window with a fire escape. The officer and firefighters quickly made their way to safety and cancelled the Mayday as the line stretched for extension began to operate on the fire.

Some of the fundamentals discussed above may help keep members from getting into trouble, and all will aid in the success of a rescue or self rescue operation should the need arise on the fireground. These skills are basic but perishable if not practiced routinely. Firefighters should use them appropriately at each incident and make them an integral part of training on a daily basis. When you make emergency procedures part of your routine, they will be performed efficiently and correctly during the stress of an actual incident.


David DeStefano is a 23-year veteran of the North Providence (RI) Fire Department, where he serves as a lieutenant in Ladder Co. 1. He previously served as a lieutenant in Engine 3 and was a firefighter in Ladder 1. He teaches a variety of topics for the Rhode Island Fire Academy. He can be reached at




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