Because of the normal volume of traffic on fire department radios during firefighting operations, a department must have a procedure that gives priority to an individual who needs to notify the incident commander (IC) of a life-threatening situation that has happened or is about to happen. In the fire service, we classify these emergency transmissions as “Mayday” or “Urgent” transmissions. Below are some situations where you would use this type of emergency radio message.


A Mayday transmission is needed if

  • imminent collapse is feared,
  • structural collapse has occurred,
  • a member is unconscious or has suffered a life-threatening injury,
  • an officer discovers that a member under his supervision is missing (if the missing member is an officer, any team member can transmit the message), or
  • a member is trapped or lost.

An Urgent message is transmitted if

  • a member suffers an injury that requires medical attention but is not life-threatening,
  • the firefighting strategy will switch from interior to exterior attack,
  • a structural condition is discovered that could endanger working firefighters,
  • fire is entering an exposure,
  • a loss of water occurs that will endanger members, or
  • Command needs to gain control of the radio channel.

A Mayday transmission is used only in situations that are life threatening to firefighters. The Urgent message is used for other types of fireground emergencies.


To send a Mayday or an Urgent message, key the mike on your radio and transmit:

“Mayday, Mayday! [Firefighter’s ID and position] with a Mayday!” or “Urgent, Urgent! [Firefighter’s ID and position] with an Urgent!”

This format must be the same for Mayday and Urgent transmissions. The transmissions differ only in the specific type of Mayday or Urgent message transmitted.

Listen for a response. If none is heard, repeat the message until you are acknowledged.

Note: If the IC does not respond to the Mayday or Urgent transmission, anyone who hears the message is responsible to relay it to an officer or to the IC directly. Preferably, the message should be delivered face to face, if possible, to keep the radio channel open. If this is not possible, then the person responding to the Mayday transmission should transmit an “Urgent” message to gain control of the radio channel. Do not use “Mayday” to avoid confusion when answering the second transmission.


On receipt of a Mayday or an Urgent transmission, all radio traffic should stop. The IC should answer the emergency transmission as follows, preferably using a car radio:

“All units at the scene, stand by for a Mayday/Urgent transmission. Unit with the Mayday/Urgent, go ahead with your message.”

When your Mayday or Urgent has been acknowledged, you must be prepared to transmit the following required vital information to the IC:

  • designated name of the member transmitting the message,
  • member’s unit,
  • member’s fireground assignment,
  • member’s location, and
  • reason for the Mayday or Urgent transmission.

If the transmission is for a missing or trapped member, provide the member’s name, unit, assignment, last known location, and whether the missing member is radio equipped.

Note: A radio-equipped member can also activate the “Emergency” alarm button on his handheld radio, if available.


“Mayday, Mayday! Ladder 1 officer with a Mayday.”

After transmission is received and acknowledged: “Ladder 1 officer is on the floor above the fire, and I have a member missing. The missing member is Firefighter Smith. He was last seen searching apartments on the fourth floor above the fire. He does not have a radio.”

The IC should acknowledge receipt of the message and repeat it back for confirmation.

When a Mayday is transmitted, it is paramount that the IC take decisive action to control the rescue while continuing to maintain the balance of the fireground operations. He must assign the FAST (RIT) units or rescue units and fill in with additional companies for those units redirected to help with the rescue operations. As is the case with any significant fireground operations, it is important to assign a chief officer to the operation.

If your department does not have a Mayday or Urgent procedure, use these suggestions to get started. Keep the types of Mayday transmissions to about five. Any more will diminish the importance of the message. Standardize your Mayday and Urgent procedures with the other departments on your radio frequency. If each department has its own procedure, it will lead to confusion during an emergency.

Set up a committee within your mutual- aid district to address and formulate emergency radio procedures. Keep them simple, and then train your members in their use.

JOHN MILES is a lieutenant with the Fire Department of New York, assigned to Ladder 35. Previously, he served with Ladder 34 and Engine 82 and as a volunteer firefighter with the River Vale (NJ) Fire Department and the Spring Valley (NY) Fire Department.

JOHN TOBIN, a 30-year fire service veteran, is assistant chief and training officer with the River Vale (NJ) Fire Department, where he previously served as chief. He has a master’s degree in public administration and is a member of the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy Advisory Board.

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