LEARNING TO “E.S.C.A.P.E.”

BY STEVE CRANDALL

A few years ago while developing our Fire-fighter Survival and Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) programs, I came across several articles relative to the need for establishing a consistent set of parameters and situations for declaring a fireground Mayday. The research indicated that there is a huge disparity among firefighters concerning what constitutes a “personal fireground emergency” and that knowing when to declare a Mayday is an integral part of the firefighter survival process. This information rang true to me. I immediately incorporated these concepts into our department’s Firefighter Survival and RIT programs. I also established a list of fireground “events” that would constitute a Mayday situation. The more I trained on when to call a Mayday, the more I came to realize that it was also important to have a prearranged set of operational parameters for how to call a Mayday.1,2 Think about it. At the firefighter level, there really is not that much training on fireground radio communication, especially fireground Mayday communication. In some departments, firefighters are not given portable radios; they must rely on the company officer for all crew-based communication. Those firefighters given a radio usually are shown only how to turn it on and how to change channels and select zones; they are then expected to use the radio appropriately under duress. Emergency communication procedures, like any other skill or task, must be thoroughly taught and practiced to be effective. This is especially true for Mayday communications that take place during times of extreme personal stress and under the worst possible conditions. There is just too much at stake to leave any aspect of a Mayday situation up to “common sense” alone and not to have an orchestrated preplan and a well-thought-out procedure ready to be implemented at a moment’s notice.3

LEARN TO E.S.C.A.P.E.

When operating under duress in a survival situation, consistent and relevant information must be passed between the Mayday firefighter and Command. To help the firefighter and Command communicate effectively, we developed and use the E.S.C.A.P.E. acronym:

  • E = Engine/Truck Assignment. In my department, all riding positions have an assigned portable radio and an accompanying call sign—the apparatus number followed by a letter designation. Starting with the officer and moving counterclockwise around the inside of the cab, positions are assigned the letter designations of a-Alpha, b-Bravo, c-Charlie, d-Delta, and so on. As the captain of Rescue 5, my designation is “Rescue 5 Alpha.” My engineer/driver is “Rescue 5 Bravo.” My two firefighters are “Rescue 5 Charlie and Delta.” This is our identity on the fireground. We avoid using names on the radio unless it is absolutely necessary. At the beginning of each shift, a staffing document is sent out from the battalion chief’s office and placed on each rig. A copy is also forwarded to the Dispatch Center. If for some reason the specific name or apparatus assignment of the Mayday firefighter (or any other firefighter for that matter) is required, it can easily be found on this document or through the Dispatch Center.
  • S = Situation. This is a brief description of what happened. Examples may include “fell through the floor,” “lost,” “trapped,” and “pinned in a collapse.” There is no need for a lengthy narrative at this point. Just let Command know what happened.
  • C = Conditions. Again, a brief description of the current conditions at your present location is best—”heavy smoke, high heat,” “zero visibility,” “light smoke,” and “collapse debris,” to name a few.
  • A = Air Supply. As we all know, air supply management is pivotal to survival for a firefighter operating in an immediately dangerous to life and health environment. Instead of giving an SCBA cylinder psi reading (which may be difficult or even impossible to get, based on the situation), air supply communication is simply divided into low alarm sounding or not sounding.
  • P = Position/Present Location. There is a little more leeway on this one. Obviously, the more detailed the information, the better. This can range from “Entered on the bravo side, floor/division two, first room on the right, wall three” to “somewhere in the basement.” Give relevant details and clues—things you can see (lights, objects, furniture) or things you can hear (saws, fans, air horns). At this point, avoid a long “travel log” description unless absolutely necessary.
  • E = Escape Plan/Route. Let Command (and others) know your plan. You can “stay in place” and wait for rescue or continue to move. Since this is an article on Mayday communications and not personal survival tactics, it doesn’t matter what you do; just communicate your intentions and plan.

MAYDAY RADIO TRAFFIC

Given the above information, the Mayday radio traffic would go something like this:

1 If you or a member of your crew is in distress or in need of assistance, call “Mayday” immediately on realizing that rescue is needed.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!”

Repeat “Mayday” at least three times. This will give Command, Dispatch, and others more opportunities to hear you. It also gets your Mayday over the air if you are using 800-Mhz radios and forget to wait a second or two for the “trunking” to take place when “keying” the radio before speaking.

2 Immediately on hearing a declaration of “Mayday,” Command should gain “control” of the assigned fireground frequency to acknowledge the Mayday and alert all personnel working on the fireground.

“Command copies a Mayday … Emergency Traffic … repeat … Emergency Traffic … go ahead, Mayday.”

At this point the term “Mayday” has been repeated over the air at least five times and the term “Emergency Traffic” at least twice. Any person with a radio should be well aware there is an emergency situation and should stay off the air. Some departments request radio alert tones from the Dispatch Center at this time. In our drills, we have all but abandoned this. The tones are weak; they really don’t serve much purpose and take up valuable airtime.

3 As the Mayday firefighter, give a brief report using the E.S.C.A.P.E. acronym:

“Truck Two Bravo … I’ve fallen through the first floor. I’m pinned and injured … heavy smoke, zero visibility, moderate heat … my low-air alarm is sounding … I think I’m somewhere in the basement in the middle of the room … I can’t move.”

Obviously, these items do not need to be relayed to Command in the exact order as in the acronym. The point of the E.S.C.A.P.E. acronym, like all acronyms, is to act as a prompt or a reminder of specific or important information. Even if you can remember only a few of the points, you are still ahead of the game. Command will prompt you on the rest.

4 Command confirms the Mayday report. “Command copies … Truck Two Bravo, fallen through floor into the basement, injured, heavy smoke, low on air, unable to move … activate your PASS … RIT is on the way.”

There is no need to repeat the entire message word for word. Hit the key points. Not only does this ensure that Command got the message, it also puts the important information over the air again for the RIT and others to hear as the rescue effort is being prepared.

5 After the Mayday has been communicated, Command should verify the status of the other members of the Mayday company.

“Truck Two, Command … status and location.”

“Command, Truck Two … one firefighter missing, fallen through the floor on the first level … we have a PAR of three only, no other injuries. We are approximately 75 feet in on the A side. Follow the 21/2-inch line in. We are low on air … we can’t wait here long. Send in the RIT.”

At some point during these initial steps of communication, Command should also attempt to get more information from the Mayday firefighter and give direction and support if possible. This may include covering the points of the E.S.C.A.P.E. acronym the firefighter may have forgotten during the call for help or finding out if other firefighters are trapped or lost or if the firefighter is alone. If the situation allows, Command may want to ask some simple questions: What was the last known assignment or operating area? Can you hear anything (fans, saws, air horns, radios, for example)? If necessary, Command can direct the firefighter to a doorway, window, or wall and instruct him to activate his PASS device and turn on his flashlight. Command should give the firefighter positive emotional support and calm him down without taking undue radio time or becoming distracted (see Figure 1).

6 At this point, Command should consider the radio channel options. Not all departments have the luxury (hassle?) of having multiple fireground channels. Basically, three options are available to Command: (1) conduct all operations on the same channel, (2) designate a second channel for the RIT operation while all others on the fireground stay on the original channel, and (3) designate a second channel for the fire operation and have the RIT and the Mayday firefighter stay on the primary channel (see “Radio Channel Options”). Regardless of which option Command chooses, he must select a channel. We have found that if Command does not choose a channel, “freelancing” will take place on the channels at some point during the operation. This can lead to a channel-switching and an accountability nightmare later in the operation. In our department, our designated “alternate channel” is 16. Either the Mayday firefighter and the RIT can switch or the rest of the fireground operation can switch. By designating the last channel on the dial, the persons switching channels can simply turn the dial all the way to the right. This eliminates the need to count the “clicks” or visualize the LED scene or dial numbers. One member of the RIT or the CP is assigned to monitor this channel. If any firefighter is in distress and is unable to reach Command, he need only turn the dial all the way left/counterclockwise (channel 1) to reach the Dispatch Center or Command or all the way right/clockwise (channel 16) to reach a member of the RIT or assistant at the CP.

7 Once the channels have been designated, Command should conduct a Personnel Accountability Report (PAR) of all fireground companies. Based on the situation, Command may want to do this prior to switching radio channels if there is a possibility that there may be multiple Mayday companies. Regardless, a PAR should be requested from all companies operating on the fireground. This is especially important in situations of structural collapse. Command cannot develop an effective rescue plan until accurate information is available on the number of missing firefighters, their identities, their last known assigned areas of responsibility, and the companies that are involved.

Click here to enlarge image

Although a PAR is important and necessary, if it is conducted on the same radio frequency as the RIT/Mayday communications, the RIT operation may be slowed or otherwise adversely affected. Command, not the on-scene companies or Dispatch, should initiate the PAR. Start with the crews/companies closest to the accident area, and work your way out. One last note on PAR: One thing I’ve been trying lately is adding my crew’s location and injury status (“Rescue Five has PAR, side A exterior, no injuries,” for example). This may sound redundant to some, but consider the following. Several years ago, I was working in the CP at a multiple-alarm fire in a lightweight commercial structure. During interior operations, a section of the roof collapsed, burying one firefighter and injuring several others. The interior crews were able to quickly extricate the trapped firefighter. As the crews retreated to the exterior of the building, Command called for a PAR. All companies responded that they had PAR (all personnel were accounted for). However, it wasn’t until later that we in the CP learned that firefighters had actually sustained injuries severe enough to merit their transport to the hospital by ambulance.

It goes without saying that during all of this, many, many other things are going on at the same time. The RIT is deploying; the next-higher alarm is being requested. The command structure is being expanded. The Mayday firefighter is doing everything in his power to get out of the structure if possible or is hunkering down in the “Firefighter Survival Position” waiting for rescue.

Currently, the E.S.C.A.P.E. acronym and the communication model outlined above have been working well for us. I am sure that other Mayday communication procedures work equally as well. Training and practice are the keys to success. We’ve implemented a communications portion into our Firefighter Survival and Firefighter Rescue/RIT programs. The basics of radio usage are reviewed during our 30-hour Firefighter Survival course and again during our 50-hour Firefighter Rescue/RIT course. Participants also declare and deliver multiple Mayday reports over the radio to Command using the E.S.C.A.P.E. acronym. Our Dispatch Center is included in these drills as well (and it’s a good thing, too; these personnel were just as confused and unclear about Mayday communications as the untrained firefighters were). Initially, this communication training is done in a relaxed, teaching atmosphere. Throughout the courses, participants progress to delivering Mayday reports wearing full personal protective equipment/SCBA in zero visibility and in restricted physical positions during scenario-based situations. The system works, but it must be practiced and refined just like any other survival skill.

It’s fun and easy to train on the “cool” skills of firefighter survival; however, we cannot forget the “boring” but valuable skills of Mayday communication. If you can’t call for help effectively, that help may never come. After all, when it comes to fighting fire, the final weapon is the brain; all else is supplemental.

Endnotes

1. Clark, B., R. Angulo, and S. Auch, “You Must Call a Mayday for RIT to Work: Will You?” Fire Engineering, June 2003.

2. Clark, B. “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday: Do Firefighters Know When to Call It?” firehouse.com, Oct. 2001.

3. Varone, C., “Firefighter Safety and Radio Communication,” Fire Engineering, March 2003.

STEVE CRANDALL is a captain in the Salt Lake City (UT) Fire Department, where he serves as a coordinator/trainer for the Heavy Rescue Team and as a rescue specialist on FEMA.USAR Utah Task Force 1. He developed the department’s Firefighter Survival and Rapid Intervention Team programs.


RADIO CHANNEL OPTIONS

Following are some of the pros and cons of the three radio channel options discussed in this article:

Conduct all operations on the same channel.

Pros:

  • This does not require any action by anyone on-scene.
  • Everyone can hear what’s going on.
  • No one gets “lost” during the switchover.
  • This may be a good option if the CP is understaffed or if most other communications take place face-to-face.

Cons:

  • It may be difficult for the RIT and Mayday firefighter to get airtime.
  • There is greater potential for confusion and miscommunication as all companies continue with fireground tactical radio traffic.
  • This may lead to heightened anxiety for everyone involved.

Dedicated channel for the RIT operation (all others stay on the original channel).

Pros:

  • This method keeps all others on the fireground operating on the primary channel.
  • This approach affects fewer people and would make it less likely to “lose” personnel on the radio switch.

Cons:

  • It forces the Mayday firefighter to perform a small, manipulative skill when he may not be able to do so if trapped, has a decreased level of consciousness, has panicked, or is actively moving to an egress point. (It’s hard enough to get everyone on the same channel standing on the drill ground before a drill!)
  • You may “lose” the only contact with the Mayday firefighter.
  • This may be a better option if your department has set up the radios with “emergency/alternate channels” on each end of the dial. If you are in trouble, turn the knob all the way right or left to find the RIT.

Second channel for the fire operation (RIT and firefighters stay on the primary channel).

Pros:

  • This approach keeps the Mayday firefighter in constant communication with the RIT and Command (or RIT/Rescue Command).
  • This option does not require a small, manipulative skill on the Mayday firefighter’s part, leaving the firefighter’s hands free for other survival tasks and allowing him to concentrate on the problems at hand as opposed to counting the clicks on the radio dial.

Cons:

  • This choice affects the greatest number of people and presents the possibility of “losing” other fireground personnel on the radio switch. This option, too, is made easier if your department has dedicated alternate channels.

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