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Fire IQ: April 2011

Mayday, mayday, mayday. No one, especially a busy incident commander in the midst of managing an already difficult operation, wants to hear these words broadcast over the emergency ground channel.

April 1, 2011
By Peter Hunt

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Mayday, mayday, mayday. No one, especially a busy incident commander in the midst of managing an already difficult operation, wants to hear these words broadcast over the emergency ground channel. When they are transmitted, either by the affected individual (or crew), or by a colleague who knows or suspects that a fellow firefighter is injured, trapped or lost, the implications can range from serious to disastrous.

A recent mayday in Toronto came to a dramatic but happy conclusion as Toronto firefighters proved they had their stuff together by quickly rescuing two members who had fallen from an exposure building into the unit of origin.

In my department, just days before the Toronto incident, an aggressive exterior size-up of a fire building by RIT members resulted in the discovery of a disoriented firefighter trapped by a rapidly extending basement fire. RIT members transmitted the mayday and pulled the member to safety through a basement window, with just minor burns.

Acting on the assumption that similar events will occur, every fire department must have a comprehensive mayday policy that complements its existing incident/scene management policies of command, accountability, RIT and communication.

Such a policy must address such issues as enforcement of 2 in / 2 out, establishment of an interim RIT, automatic response to support rescue teams the moment a mayday is received, a predetermined emergency channel, and a protocol for determining which members will change channels (and under what circumstances) and whether a PAR will be conducted. The policy should ensure that all members will react to a crisis uniformly and consistently.

Anecdotal evidence has consistently shown that firefighters who get into trouble either call the mayday too late or not at all. I suspect the simple reason is that firefighters, being problem solvers, refuse to accept the fact that there is no solution to the problem they are encountering at that moment.

The North American fire service has made great strides in the last decades in the areas of crew accountability, RIT, air-supply management and calling a mayday. But have we done enough?

In some jurisdictions, the number of firefighters who can be deployed within the first 10 to 20 minutes of an incident is more than adequate to ensure that one or more RIT can be assembled quickly. Unfortunately, many departments face staffing issues that prevent this.

For these smaller departments, there must be a greater focus on maintaining crew integrity, strict adherence to 2 in / 2 out, extremely disciplined incident command (no freelancing), and constant reinforcement of the message that firefighters should never hesitate to call the mayday.

Regardless of the size of our respective departments, we all need to be reminded from time to time of the tremendous sacrifices and lessons learned by departments such as Denver and Phoenix. On Sept. 28, 1992, 16-year Denver firefighter Mark Langvardt tragically died despite the heroic efforts of fellow firefighters to rescue him from a burning two-storey commercial occupancy. The Denver drill was developed as a direct result of the frustrating inability of firefighters to raise Langvardt’s unconscious body to an unusually high office window. On March 14, 2001, Phoenix firefighter Bret Tarver was separated from his crew and became disoriented in a large, burning commercial structure he was searching. Despite repeated attempts by several crews to rescue him, Tarver subsequently died, and his death forced the department to reassess its entire RIT program.

Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini would later say, “Agencies should learn from the death of a firefighter and improve their operations. It’s a tragic way to change, but if we miss those lessons . . . we are being disrespectful to those persons that were lost.”

I strongly urge you learn more about these and similar incidents and then take whatever steps are necessary to prevent such a tragedy from occurring in your department.

Here are some suggestions that might help:

  • Don’t be satisfied with a mayday policy; make calling a mayday part of your department’s culture.
  • Make sure every member can call a proper mayday instinctively by regularly training on LUNAR (location in the building, unit or company in trouble, name(s), air supply remaining, resources needed for the rescue).
  • Establish a predetermined emergency channel so that when command orders the channel clear, all members know where to go on the radio if they are not involved in the rescue.
  • Ensure that company/sector officers understand that they must work independently of command while the rescue is being managed.
  • Enforce the crew concept and never condone freelancing.
  • Develop a workable, user-friendly accountability system and insist on compliance.
  • Instil in members the belief that there is nothing routine about a RIT assignment and approach it as though lives depend on it.
  • Train all members regularly in techniques of self- and RIT rescue.

NOTE: A great video on self- and RIT rescue, along with direction for building a simulator that will save lives, can be found at www.vententersearch.com/?p=767 .


Peter Hunt, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, is a captain in the Ottawa Fire Department’s suppression division. He can be reached at peter.hunt@rogers.com


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