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Trainer’s Corner: August 2014

I am grateful for the positive response to my call in my June column for a greater mayday awareness. However we are far from the mark. Lately, we’ve been pushing mayday awareness training in our department.

August 1, 2014 
By Ed Brouwer

I am grateful for the positive response to my call in my June column for a greater mayday awareness. However we are far from the mark. Lately, we’ve been pushing mayday awareness training in our department. One particular night, we listened to the audio tapes of the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire. As the cries for help echoed through the hall, a few guys got weepy. One, in particular – a father of a firefighter in a neighboring department – gathered up extra copies of our handout and made his son read them. He pointed to the tag line, “Are you tough enough to call a mayday?” and asked, “Well, are you?”

calling a mayday  
Firefighters must practice calling a mayday to be comfortable doing so when bad things happen. The seven firefighters who died in the Sofa Super Store did not have a mayday protocol in place.



Later that night at a local bar, this same firefighter bumped into two of our firefighters, and before the night was over they, too, asked him, “Are you tough enough to call a mayday?” He admitted that no one in his department had successfully completed the Firefighter’s Ghost Maze through which we put 100 firefighters during our spring training session. (See Trainer’s Corner, June 2014, at It was at this point that this firefighter gave me a great compliment (at least that is how I took it); he said, “Man, Brouwer is a hard ass when it comes to firefighter safety.” And to that I say, Yes! Yes I am, and I have no intention of dialing it down. 

Perhaps the following report will help you to also become a hard ass for firefighter safety.


The day I was writing this – June 18 – marked the seventh anniversary of the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, S.C., that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. It will never be possible to determine what really occurred inside the Sofa Super Store, but it was a tragedy waiting to happen. It was determined that the building had been remodeled without permits or inspections. There were flammable liquids stored improperly in several areas. Some of the exits were locked. Timed pictures of the fire’s development, taken from across the road, showed heavy smoke and flames from the roof. Firefighters inside had no idea what was going on above them.

Almost every firefighter who arrived went into the building, including those on the ladder truck. “They were entering the building by ones and twos . . .” according to the post-incident investigation by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report. One firefighter, who realized a supply line had not been established, turned the corner to find the hydrant missing; it had been removed because delivery trucks kept hitting it. Unaware of the location of the next hydrant, this firefighter set out on foot to look; he found one, but wound up 30 meters (100 feet) short of hose. While that was underway, 16 firefighters were in the burning building with a booster line and a one-and-a-half-inch hoseline. Water supply set-up took about nine minutes.

Although the firefighters heard of deteriorating conditions, none of the chiefs made a decision to evacuate the store and move from an offensive to a defensive attack. That decision didn’t come until after several disoriented firefighters had been rescued.

I must stress the importance of officers knowing when it’s time to change tactics and get firefighters out of harm’s way.

There was no accountability whatsoever. According to the report, “The first person outside the building to become aware that firefighters were in trouble inside was an off-duty battalion chief (car 303), who was en route to the scene in his personal vehicle. He heard traffic on his portable radio that indicated a firefighter was lost and unable to find his way out of the building.” (This radio traffic was not heard by anyone at the fire scene).

Car 303 attempted to contact the fire chief at 19:30:27 to advise him of the situation, but was unable to establish contact on the busy radio channel. He continued to the fire scene as quickly as possible, parked his vehicle, and located the fire chief on the west side of the fire building, near the loading dock. The face-to-face exchange with battalion chief 303 was the fire chief’s first indication that firefighters were in distress.

The review panel determined that the firefighters really didn’t have a mayday plan in place. Crews were not instructed on when to call a mayday and what to do to save themselves while awaiting rescue. The analysis indicates that the Charleston Fire Department failed to adequately prepare its members for the situation they encountered at the Sofa Super Store fire.

Listening to the fire-ground tapes, you can hear the first radio traffic related to firefighters in trouble at 7:27 p.m. At 7:29 p.m. there is more radio traffic from firefighters lost and looking for help. (No one on the fire ground heard them.)

At 7:31 p.m. the rescue of an employee trapped inside the building is made by cutting through the wall. The employee did not have much time left. The 7:32 p.m. mark is the only time a mayday call is heard, and at that point a chief tells everyone to stay off the radio to listen for those calls.

We are pretty sure that within the first nine minutes of the call, six of the nine firefighters lost their lives. Only three firefighters called for help; firefighters Mulkey, Kelsey, Drayton, Baity, Hutchinson and Benke did not. These firefighters had a total of 125 years of service. Only firefighter French called a mayday and activated his emergency identifier button. Firefighter Thompson called for help once, and firefighter Champaign made multiple calls for help. Those three had a total of 7.5 years of service. 

What would you say in your last nine minutes and three seconds? The following statements were taken from the radio traffic transcripts. They were made by firefighter Melven Champaign, 46: “Which way out?; Which way out?” Nine radio activations (no discernable audio) Keyed the mike: “Which way out? Everybody out . . . We need some help here . . . (inaudible) . . . firefighter. Needs some help out. Lost connection with the hose. Can you hear me dispatch? In Jesus’ name. Amen.” Then he died.

The PASS alarm is heard in the background during 52 transmissions, but there no reaction to it by other fire personnel.

The single use of the term mayday was recorded at 19:32:15. The mayday was not heard by the incident commander or by anyone else at the fire scene.

The Communications Center immediately notified the incident commander when a firefighter’s emergency button was activated at 19:34:40. During the period while firefighters were attempting to call for assistance, the following radio traffic was recorded: car 1 called for more pressure in the supply line from engine 12 to engine 10; car 1 called for engine 3 to respond to the fire scene and lay a line to ladder 5 (ladder 5 was being set up by off-duty firefighters on the west side of the building); car 2 called for manpower to assist with the civilian rescue operation; car 5 reported that the trapped employee had been rescued; car 2 called for EMS to respond for the rescued employee; engineer 11 advised that he was charging the two-and-a-half inch line; engineer 16 called for traffic control on the Savannah Highway because cars were still running over the supply line.

Analysis of the recorded radio traffic indicates that those members who would die did not attempt to call for assistance until they were in critical distress. All of the recorded messages indicate that the firefighters were lost, disoriented, and either running out of air or already out of air. The firefighters were already in imminent danger, deep inside the building, when they began to call for assistance.

The recorded radio traffic included 16 distress messages that were transmitted by firefighters inside of the Sofa Super Store. Distress messages were recorded from firefighter 16, firefighter 5, and engineer 5. The recordings included additional distress messages in which the firefighter speaking could not be identified.

None of these messages was heard by a command officer on the scene; they were ignored, neglected and left unanswered.

All of the firefighter-in-distress messages came from the radios assigned to the members who later died. The recording system did not capture any distress messages from the surviving members who were operating inside the building.

The survivors: seven firefighters lost connection with hoseline and their crew; two firefighters ran out of air. None of them called for help.

Calling a mayday must become an accepted decision. Firefighters do not like to admit that they might need to be rescued. The delay in calling a mayday may be caused by many factors, but three must be addressed immediately: the stigma associated with admitting to yourself and letting others know you need help; not having been given clear rules for calling a mayday; and the manner in which the fire service makes decisions. 

A comment from a firefighter interviewed after his rescue: “I knew I was in trouble. I thought about using the radio, but I thought, ‘I found my way in; I can find my way out.’ ”   Other firefighters said they realized that events were not unfolding correctly. They were all trying to find their way out of the building, but they couldn’t. They all ran out of air. They all tried alternative filter-breathing techniques. But in the end, exposure to carbon monoxide impaired their judgment and motor skills.

We in the Canadian fire services need to develop clear mayday decision-making parameters (rules that specify when a mayday must be called) and institute mayday training programs that firefighters must take and continue to pass throughout their fire-service experiences.

NFPA 1404 sets forth the standard for air management. According to the standard, a firefighter is supposed to exit the IDLH (immediately dangerous to life and health) environment before the low air alarm goes off. And if it goes off while a firefighter is in an IDLH environment, it is to be treated as an event comparable to a mayday situation.

What if we trained firefighters to be aware of their air supply while working in hazardous atmospheres?

What if we said the last 1100 psi of that air supply shall only be used in the event of an emergency that interferes with normal egress from that hazardous environment?

What if the activation of the SCBA low-air alarm in a hazardous environment were to be treated as a serious condition?

We need to start considering that the first 16 minutes of air are yours, the remaining 10 are for your family and fellow firefighters.

Each member has a responsibility to ensure his or her own safety by regularly checking the pressure remaining in the SCBA cylinder while operating in a hazardous environment. 

We still have firefighters entering burning structures without radios.                                                            

We still have firefighters using the low air alarm as an indicator to leave the building.                                         

We still spend more time tying knots than we do practicing a mayday.                                                           

We still yell “shake” when a PASS alarm is activated.

Please help me change this. The lives of your members depend on your decision to help stop this insanity.

So let me ask you this: Are you tough enough to call a mayday? Well, are you?

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and Greenwood Fire and Rescue. The 25-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor/evaluator and an ordained disaster-response chaplain. Contact Ed at

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