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Back to Basics: Mayday, mayday, mayday

When we hear the word mayday we immediately think of disaster. The word mayday is meant to grab our attention for immediate resolution or help. We often hear the word on television or in movies when a plane is in distress. Pilots are trained to declare a mayday as soon as they encounter any kind of danger

June 19, 2009 
By Mark van der Feyst

When we hear the word mayday we immediately think of disaster. The word mayday is meant to grab our attention for immediate resolution or help. We often hear the word on television or in movies when a plane is in distress. Pilots are trained to declare a mayday as soon as they encounter any kind of danger. They do not hesitate to call a mayday  – they just do it. In the fire service, we are not as quick to call a mayday. But the quicker a mayday is declared, the quicker the rapid intervention team (RIT) can complete the rescue. 

The rapid intervention team assesses the mayday firefighter. Photo by Mark van der Feyst


When the life of a firefighter is threatened, the entire help system must be initiated through the use of an effective distress signal. A mayday may be declared by fire personnel who are trapped, in imminent danger or in need of immediate assistance, or by the incident commander when a firefighter is missing. This term should be used and applied to firefighter emergencies only. This way, when a mayday call comes in, we know right away that a firefighter is in trouble. For all other fireground emergencies such as building collapse or water supply problems, the term emergency traffic should be used.

All on-scene firefighters should ask themselves if they’re ready for the mayday call. There are two points to consider: Are you ready to declare a mayday for yourself; and are you prepared to deal with a mayday when one is declared? Many firefighters say they are prepared to declare a mayday when they are in trouble but are they really? Through training we can condition ourselves to react in certain ways. For example, we have trained firefighters to feel the roof before stepping onto it and we have trained them to get off the roof if it feels spongy. The same training must be provided for firefighters to declare a mayday. If we train our personnel to recognize the signs of trouble we can condition them to declare a mayday to quickly activate help. So, what do we do when we have to declared a mayday? Let’s look at some operational procedures for the RIT.


Allow the troubled firefighter or the troubled team to give the mayday report. If the firefighter or team is not calm and is tying up the radio, interrupt. The IC needs to calm down the firefighter who is declaring the mayday. If the firefighter is not calm, then the message will take longer to get through.   

After the mayday report, notify the RIT to deploy to a designated area with its equipment. Hopefully this designated area will be near the last known location of the firefighter needing help. 

If the troubled firefighter or team did not give you enough information, try to obtain it before the firefighter loses consciousness or loses his radio. You need the firefighter’s location and status, conditions, air supply status and the location of other team members. This information is vital to the rescue. 

Contact dispatch. Have dispatch repeat that a mayday has been called and that all other radio traffic is to cease. If you can, move the fireground to another channel. Request another alarm and any other resources that you feel you will need. In some departments, it is policy is to have the RIT operation on one radio channel and the fireground operations on another channel. Dedicated radio channels alleviate any radio cross interference (but some departments do not have enough available channels to do this). If you do switch channels, you need to get everybody else to do so too.

Pass command of the fire or the mayday to another commanding officer. There are now two separate fireground operations happening at once. You will need to assign another incident commander to handle one of the operations. This person will assume the role of RIT IC or rescue IC but will still report to the initial incident commander. 

Concentrate on helping the RIT with updated information from the troubled firefighter or team. As more information comes in, it needs to be delivered to the RIT-sector officer. This information will help the RIT members in their operation. 

Immediately establish two additional RITs, one to cover the remaining fireground operation and one to back up the initial team in case it needs help. You will need additional manpower (12:1 ratio, 12 firefighters to rescue one firefighter) so get it there as soon as you can. 

If hydraulic tools and airbags are on the scene, get that equipment moved up to a staging area close to the structure before the team calls for it. If it is not on the scene, get it there as quickly as possible. This falls under proactive RIT operations. If the RIT is monitoring the radio traffic it will be able to determine what the initial RIT will need.  

Remember to keep tabs on the fire. It’s probably still burning. If we put the fire out, we remove part of the problem. 
Consider creating an enlarged opening for removal of the downed firefighter if it will speed up the rescue process.
Keep a strong hand on the freelancing that will start to take place. This is a trend in the fire service. As soon as we hear that a firefighter needs help, we all want to drop what we are doing to assist.

Keep constant tabs on your RIT members. They are not supermen; they could get into trouble too.

Start an immediate accounting of all on-scene personnel.

Make sure you send in a backup hoseline behind the RIT for protection. This will form a part of the defendable space for the downed firefighter. The mayday firefighter may need water to cool off the area around him.  

Start to prepare the exterior of the building for a removal operation. Clear debris and obstructions, set up floodlights and prepare medical equipment such as stretchers and backboards. This goes back to the proactive RIT operation.
These are a few key points for the receipt of a mayday call. We need to train on all these points so we will be proficient and react promptly and properly to the mayday.

Mark van der Feyst began his career in the fire service in 1998 with the Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company, Station 21, in Pennsylvania. He served as a firefighter and training officer for four years, then joined the Mississauga Fire & Emergency Services, where he served for three years as a firefighter and shift medical instructor. He is now with the City of Woodstock Fire Department in Ontario.

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