“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” These are words no one on the fireground wants to hear or transmit. Volumes have been written about how to manage the dreaded Mayday; however, with all the information available about the subject, it is surprising how many firefighters do not know what to do when they find themselves lost in a structure. Are your firefighters properly trained? Do they know what to do in these types of situations?

Disorientation is the second leading cause of fireground deaths, behind cardiac arrest. Each year the fire service continues to mourn the loss of so many of our brother and sister firefighters who might have been saved if a few basic rules were followed.

A simple drill can train firefighters in what to do if they should become disoriented. This training should be mandatory for all firefighters prior to their being sent out into the field. The need for Mayday training became quite evident during a recent training exercise I attended. It seems that many firefighters have received little or no training in how to react in this life-or-death situation. Many firefighters from many different departments attended this training session. The firefighters were initially given no information except for that described below. This was done intentionally as a quick test to see how each trainee would react to the situation. Now, keep in mind that these were not rookie firefighters.


Each student was led into a large open area, in this case an old warehouse approximately 125 feet by 200 feet, but any size or type of room will work. The student was dressed in full personal protective equipment, including SCBA. NomexT hoods were donned backward, to simulate a smoky environment.

Each student was then given the following scenario: You are advancing a hoseline into a warehouse fire with your engine company. You become separated from your team members and become lost and disoriented.

An instructor then escorted the student into the warehouse. While leading the student, the instructor moved the student in a zigzag pattern through the area and finally turned the student in circles to further disorient him. The student was given no further instructions other than, “You are now lost, and you are to follow any procedures your department has in place should you find yourself in this situation.”

Note: The firefighter was told that he had a portable radio and could make any needed radio transmissions. Every student was equipped with a PASS device.

A fully equipped rapid intervention team (RIT) was waiting outside. The RIT was activated only if the student called for it or when the instructor thought the student had spent enough time trying to rescue himself.

At this point, the instructors were looking for a certain step-by-step process from the trapped firefighter. The students’ responses were, to say the least, surprising.

The first student took only about three minutes to find his way out by himself without using any help. At this point, we thought we had made this exercise too simple. However, that was the last time any student found the way out on his own. The rest of what we witnessed was alarming, as is evidenced below.

  • Remain calm. One of the first lessons taught to new firefighters is to remain calm in an emergency, to conserve the air supply. Members should be trained in emergency breathing techniques. During an emergency is not the time to learn them—it is the time to start using them.


Some students allowed panic to overcome them. Several ripped the facepiece from their face, a mistake that can prove deadly even if you follow all the other steps correctly.

  • Transmit the Mayday. Although all participants were told they could make any radio transmissions they thought were necessary, many did not transmit a Mayday, or they waited way too long to do so. Remember, time is not an ally at this point. You should transmit a Mayday as soon as you think you are lost or separated. Much to the dismay of the instructors, many firefighters were never trained on how to transmit such a message, or their department had no such procedures in place for doing so. This also brought to light how important it is that all firefighters entering a burning building be equipped with a portable radio. Unfortunately, this is only a dream in most fire departments. Are any chiefs listening?
  • Activate your PASS device. As soon as you realize that you’re lost, manually activate your PASS device if you are physically able to do so. This will greatly help the RIT to find you. Many of our students failed to activate their devices or waited too long to use them.

We also found that the alarm from the PASS device severely interfered with radio transmissions. You may have to turn off the alarm while making radio transmissions so you can be heard.

We also noted that we could hardly hear the PASS device in this large warehouse filled with stock and running machines. It was also difficult trying to ascertain the direction from which the noise was coming, which made it harder for rescuers to find the downed firefighter.

Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of operating in areas that are wide-open spaces and that do not interfere with our PASS devices. Know the limitations of your equipment!

Note: A new system in development uses ultrasound technology to locate downed firefighters; it definitely shows promise relative to enhancing our safety. This technology was tested during training exercises; the missing firefighters were found in half the time, sometimes even sooner. The device uses a small transmitter that doubles as a PASS device that emits the sound wave; a hand-held tracking unit homes in on the activated transmitter.

  • Orient yourself: Take matters into your own hands. If you encounter this situation, become your own savior. Even students who followed some of the above procedures chose to just sit and wait to be rescued. That is like waiting to die! As long as you are physically able, you should try to remove yourself from danger. Firefighters have used some ingenious methods to orient themselves, including the following:

— Some followed cracks in the floor and used them to lead to outside walls, where you can find all sorts of exit points.

— Some students took items out of their pockets and threw them in the direction in which they thought the walls were.

— Still others used the sounds they heard from radios, machinery, or the RIT to orient themselves.

These methods might sound unorthodox; but, when your survival depends on it, any method that gets you out of the situation is a good one. Most firefighters, when they heard the RIT approaching, tried to get the team’s attention by verbal communications, striking the floor with a tool, and moving in the direction of the team. In some instances, the firefighter actually moved away from the RIT; this is one of those situations that might be avoided if the lost member and the rescuers can communicate by portable radio.

  • Remain calm. This may be the hardest step. If you have ever been trapped, you know what I mean.
  • Transmit the Mayday. If your department does not have a procedure for doing this, it should certainly develop and implement one.
  • Activate your PASS device. This device should be armed before you enter the building and manually turned on once you realize that you’re lost.
  • Orient yourself. Take matters into your own hands. Don’t wait to die. Find your own way out if you’re physically able.


Unfortunately, we will never be able to make the fireground 100-percent safe. So until someone figures out a way to do that, this type of training will continue to be a must. Each fire department must make sure that its members know not only how to manage the Mayday but also how to transmit one and what procedures to follow after they do.

MICHAEL NASTA is an 18-year veteran of the Newark (NJ) Fire Department, where he serves as captain of Truck 5. He is also a member of the South Hackensack (NJ) Volunteer Fire Department. Nasta is a Level II New Jersey certified instructor and a senior fire instructor at the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Academy. He is a H.O.T. coordinator for FDIC and the lead H.O.T. instructor for the truck company search classes at FDIC and FDIC West.

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