Line-of-duty death investigations reveal that when faced with life-and-death situations, many firefighters don't recognize the extreme danger they're in or initiate calls for assistance, or they fail to properly employ tools and equipment. Unfortunately, some of these men and women forfeited their lives to circumstances they could have survived if they, or others working at the scene, had reacted differently.
A fire department's mayday standard operating procedures serve as guidelines to help firefighters take the correct actions in disorienting smoke and mind-numbing heat. These procedures are a foundation for self-survival training and a basic action plan for the other personnel on scene to conduct the rescue and support. It's critical that a fire department's mayday procedures be as well-defined and as complete as possible.
This point was made in a near-tragic way to the Amarillo (Texas) Fire Department when a firefighter fell into a fire-filled basement after a sudden floor collapse. The firefighter wasn't hurt in the fall, but his low-air alarm was sounding. He and his partner, who wasn't involved in the collapse, believed the basement entrance had been walled off, yet neither firefighter attempted to communicate with the incident commander about the situation. Fortunately, the trapped firefighter was able to self-extricate and was unharmed.
The department's safety officer's inquiry found that the firefighters didn't have any written protocols to follow; therefore, they weren't trained to react properly when facing this type of an emergency. As a result of this incident, the department developed an initial set of mayday procedures, incorporated them into training exercises and placed them into the Standard Operating Procedures Manual. Two years later, in 2005, the department conducted extensive research into NFPA standards and fire service practices that pertain to mayday situations and used the information to update the mayday procedures, resulting in a more complete and all-encompassing set of mayday guidelines.
The first step in ensuring that mayday protocols are as complete as possible is to define exactly what constitutes a mayday emergency. This is critical because there are basic human risk-perception factors that must be overcome through knowledge and training. Firefighters involved in unusual and dangerous circumstances will have a distorted sense of reality and a tendency to overestimate personal control of their situation. The Amarillo Fire Department addressed this by asking members what they thought were conditions that warranted an immediate evacuation, a distress call or both. The department analyzed the responses and compiled them into 20 ejection parameters that are now an integral part of its mayday SOPS.
The procedures also define when personnel should use the term “mayday.” Members of the fire department are to use “mayday” when the situation is immediately life-threatening. If the emergency is not directly a life-or-death situation, such as a switch from offensive to defensive operations, it's declared by using “emergency traffic.”
At the time that these procedures were written, both NFPA 1561, Emergency Services Incident Management System, and NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, failed to recognize “mayday” as a term to announce that a firefighter or crew is in danger and needs assistance. Although the 2007 edition of NFPA 1500 still explicitly states that mayday shouldn't be used because it may cause confusion with aeronautical and nautical emergencies, the current NFPA 1561 does acknowledge that mayday is an optional term that can be used to declare firefighter emergencies.
The next step in ensuring a complete set of guidelines is to describe specific actions for the firefighter who is calling mayday. It should be a short list that the firefighter can remember and execute under extreme conditions.
First, it's imperative that the firefighter corrects, if possible, immediately life-endangering hazards. For instance, when the Amarillo firefighter fell into the basement and was escaping up a set of metal shelves, the other member of the team kept the fire knocked back. Another example would be readjusting a SCBA mask that has become dislodged before toxic smoke and fumes can cause disorientation or unconsciousness.
Once these immediately incapacitating problems are controlled, the firefighter should contact command by calling “mayday.” If your department's portable radios have an emergency signal tone, activation should be included in this step. In addition to announcing the need for assistance, the firefighter should convey vital information to help effect a successful rescue. Because it was very close to what Amarillo already had in place, the department selected the mnemonic acronym ESCAPE for this purpose: Engine/truck assignment, Situation, Conditions, Air supply, Position and Escape plan. Another common acronym that can be used is LUNAR: Location, Unit number, Name, Assignment and Resources needed.
Activation of the PASS device must be included in the firefighter actions. Although it is a universal recommendation, the reality of the fireground proves this must continually be reinforced. One study found that of the firefighters who died on the fireground over a 10-year period, only 9% of them had activated their PASS devices.
The next action the endangered firefighter should take requires some soul-searching. If the firefighter has the option, should he or she attempt to escape from the situation or stay in place, conserve air and await rescue by a rapid intervention team? Research indicates that the best answer is for the firefighter to try to self-rescue while at the same time attempting to merge with the rescue crew. The firefighter will sometimes be trapped or become so disoriented that escape is impossible, but attempting self-evacuation is still the best option most of the time.
A critical time factor in any mayday situation is air supply. The last action is for the firefighter to concentrate on air conservation. This serves two purposes. The first and most obvious is to extend the air supply as long as possible. The other is to help control the physiological reactions that take place when facing life-and-death choices. Consciously slowing down one's breathing can lower the heart rate, which in turn induces calm for better decision-making and motor-skill functioning.
These action steps are written into Amarillo's procedures as:
Resolve any immediately life-threatening situations.
Notify command using “mayday, mayday” and provide ESCAPE information.
Activate the PASS device.
Take actions to self-evacuate and/or merge with the rapid intervention team.
Take actions to conserve air supply.
Protocols also must address two very important issues regarding crews working on scene when a mayday occurs. First, there must be a provision that instructs crews to maintain their assignments until redirected by command. Every firefighter's first instinct will be to try to help the downed firefighter, but crews must be made aware that working outside the Incident Command System may hinder the rescue operation or, worse, may cause them also to become victims requiring rescue.
Second, guidelines must ensure that on-scene crews avoid radio transmissions unless it's critically important to the rescue operation. Investigation after investigation of fire service fatalities identifies overwhelming radio traffic as a major problem in conducting a firefighter rescue. Amarillo's procedures call for face-to-face communications whenever possible to lessen radio traffic at the incident. It's also recommended that command move all crews not directly involved in the rescue to another radio channel.
As a mayday unfolds, the window of opportunity to save the imperiled firefighter begins to close. Resources will be strained and personnel will be distraught. Without a set of mayday procedures in place to guide the incident commander, the rescue response will become emotionally driven chaos without direction. Mayday guidelines that include IC responsibilities will help establish a strong command presence and facilitate critical decision-making. They are the foundation on which the IC can build the rescue operation. An excellent source for these factors is Annex A of NFPA 1561, which served as the basis for determining the IC's responsibilities in Amarillo's SOPS.
Once the IC has received a mayday distress call, several immediate and near-simultaneous actions should take place. First, the IC must determine who is actually endangered. Is it only the firefighter calling mayday or an entire crew? The incident commander must determine each division and group's status through a personnel accountability report, deploy the rapid intervention team, and establish a rescue group to support them.
The IC should direct the rescue group to develop search areas based on the firefighter's ESCAPE information. The group's supervisor should enlist members of the firefighter's crew, if available, as another source of intelligence; they may be able to provide valuable information regarding the victim's last known location, access paths or hazards that may hinder the rescue. The rescue group also is responsible for establishing protection zones around the downed firefighter.
A safety group also needs to be assigned. The safety group should consist of more than a single incident safety officer. It's impractical to expect one person to monitor the entire scene, manage the technical-rescue safety aspects of the operation, and develop a safety plan for incident. Amarillo's procedures require the health and safety officer to respond to the scene to supervise multiple safety officers working in the safety group.
An ongoing rescue operation requires a large number of personnel to support it, and the IC must quickly request additional assets. Establishment of a staging area to receive, check-in and deploy these incoming resources will be necessary. Assets should include crews to operate as backups to the RIT as well as to conduct support operations, such as holding the fire out of the area while rescue teams are extracting the victim.
The mayday procedures also should require the response of command staff personnel to fill critical supervisory roles required by a complex incident, especially for the safety and rescue groups. In addition, the IC must request any specialized resources that may be required at the incident: Advanced Life Support, rescue specialists, heavy equipment, structural engineers or hazmat teams.
To coordinate these resources in an effective way, the IC must establish absolute control of radio communications. The procedures should include restricted use of radio communications by personnel on scene and moving all support activity to a separate channel. This will leave the original distress channel clear for the firefighter calling for help, the RIT and other members of the rescue group. Even with these procedures in place, it's still imperative that the IC ensures the dispatch center is monitoring all radio channels. A disoriented victim may be calling for assistance on a frequency not being monitored by on-scene personnel.
There are three tactics that the IC can implement to directly aid the endangered firefighter. The first is to have crews force and block open the building's doors and windows to facilitate the victim's self-extrication. Second, high-intensity lights should be located at these openings, especially the crew entry points. Finally, the IC should ensure that additional ventilation is provided to clear the structure of toxic smoke, gases and heat. These steps will aid not only the endangered firefighter but also the RIT members who are performing the search and rescue.
There are many critical decisions that the IC must make in a compressed timeframe. To help with these, a supporting Mayday Operations Checklist was designed and implemented as part of the tactical worksheets used by the Amarillo's command officers. It includes the command objectives the IC should achieve and a list of possible special resources that may need to be requested. On the reverse side of the checklist is a reminder of the endangered firefighter's objectives and ESCAPE information that should be communicated to the IC.
The development of your department's mayday procedures is only the beginning of the process. A firefighter who knows he or she has to call “mayday” to announce a life-threatening emergency isn't the same as a firefighter grasping the difficulty of accessing a radio mike while trapped under a debris pile in a hostile environment. Firefighting crews who know they must maintain their assignment aren't the same as crews maintaining discipline while a fellow firefighter is in desperate need. An IC who knows a reinforced response will be required for a mayday event isn't the same as effectively managing those resources while a firefighter's life hangs in the balance. Firefighters, crews and incident commanders must train and continually practice the procedures to ensure that, when the time comes, they are as prepared as possible to save the life of one of their own.
Marc Lusk is a district chief with 17 years of experience on the Amarillo (Texas) Fire Department. He has an associate's degree in fire protection technology and is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in emergency management administration from West Texas A&M University. Lusk also is a Certified Public Manager and in his fourth year of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy, where his research paper on mayday procedures was awarded a 2005 Outstanding Applied Research Award.
Mayday Ejection Parameters
It's critical that a firefighter who faces a possible life-threatening emergency take action to avoid the situation if possible or call for assistance immediately, before he or she becomes incapacitated. The following ejection parameters should be used by firefighters as a basis to make a decision to evacuate, call mayday or both. Eject if:
- You or your partner is injured.
- You are trapped.
- You are lost or disoriented.
- Your SCBA malfunctions.
- Your air supply is low.
- You have used half of your air supply getting to your current position.
- Your PPE is compromised.
- You lost communications.
- Backdraft or flashover conditions exist.
- Fire threatens your escape route.
- Indicators of building collapse exist.
- Water supply is lost.
- Electrical hazards are encountered.
- The fire attack is ineffective.
- You are exhausted.
- You encounter intentionally set hazards.
- You encounter a human threat, such as guns or baseball bats.
- You encounter unexpected hazardous materials.
- Fire or pressurized smoke is coming from vent opening.
- Command orders immediate evacuation.
For More Info
If you would like to reference the Amarillo Fire Department's mayday standard operating guidelines, the incident commander's mayday checklist, or the research behind them, the documents are available at http://amarillofire.com/.