Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Training
Trainer’s Corner: August 2009

I have just returned from FDIC Atlantic and, as usual, it was an incredible conference. I was invited to instruct four classes on calling a mayday and fire ground communications. Many of the firefighters were moved to tears as we listened to the radio transmissions from the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, S.C.

July 27, 2009  By Ed Brouwer

I have just returned from FDIC Atlantic and, as usual, it was an incredible conference. I was invited to instruct four classes on calling a mayday and fire ground communications. Many of the firefighters were moved to tears as we listened to the radio transmissions from the Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, S.C. Firefighters representing the four Atlantic provinces challenged me to take this procedure to a national level. Therefore, I am asking for help from readers to make this happen. Please e-mail me your thoughts and opinions so that the following draft will become an effective and adoptable national procedure.

Exercises Canwest Fire Services indicate that firefighters are not prepared to call a mayday.

■ Purpose
To bring about a national mayday procedure.

■ Scope
The Canadian fire services (firefighters, officers, dispatch).


■ Forward
Albeit, the goal of the fire department is to prevent the need for mayday or the subsequent RIT operation, there needs to be an effective and consistent policy for calling and responding to a mayday should the need arise.

■ Background
After conducting several drills in different departments (both composite and full time), Canwest Fire Services has found that firefighters are not prepared to call a mayday. As well, many command officers are not prepared to answer the call. It has been said that SCBA is basically time in a bottle. Firefighters are not calling for help early enough.

There is a narrow window of survivability for a firefighter who is out of SCBA air supply or who is trapped. Individual firefighters must not delay reporting to command if they become lost, trapped or are otherwise in need of assistance. Canwest Fire Services has completed an extensive study of the radio transcripts of the fatal fire at the Sofa Super Store, 1807 Savannah Highway, Charleston, S.C., June 18, 2007, in which nine firefighters lost their lives. Analysis of the recorded radio traffic indicates that the deceased members did not attempt to call for assistance until they were in critical distress. All of the recorded messages indicate that the firefighters are 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 help. The single use of the term mayday was recorded at 19:32:15. The mayday was not heard by the incident commander (IC) or by anyone else at the fire scene. The communications centre immediately notified the incident commander when a firefighter’s EIB (Emergency Indicator Button) was activated at 19:34:40.

The only individual who understood and reacted to the urgent radio messages was an off-duty battalion chief (Car 303) who was en route to the scene in his privately owned vehicle and heard the radio traffic on his portable radio. He attempted to contact the fire chief by radio at 19:30:27 to relay the information but was unable to reach him. He drove to the scene as quickly as possible and relayed the information in person to the fire chief at approximately 19:33. His face-to-face report to the fire chief was the first indication at the fire scene that firefighters were in trouble inside the building.

While firefighters were attempting to call for help, 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;
  • Car 2 called for manpower to assist with the civilian rescue operation;
  • Car 5 reported that a trapped employee had been rescued;
  • Car 2 called for EMS to respond for the rescued employee;
  • Engineer 11 advised that he was charging the 2.5-inch line;
  • Engineer 16 called for traffic control on Savannah Highway because cars were still running over the supply line.

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.

Although this took place in the United States, Canwest Fire Services has discovered that many Canadian fire services are no better prepared to handle a mayday situation. Canadian firefighters spend more training time tying knots than practising mayday procedures. This has to change. Over the last 12 months Canwest has evaluated several volunteer and full-time departments. The results of our mayday drills were discouraging. A complete report was printed in Fire Fighting In Canada in June.

Mayday is a phrase indicating that someone is in distress. Our definition of mayday is an emergency distress signal indicating that one or more fire/rescue personnel needs emergency assistance to escape an IDLH environment. Canwest Fire recommends that firefighters call a mayday when:

  • they become tangled, pinned or stuck and the low-air alarm activates;
  • they fall through the roof;
  • they becoming tangled, pinned, or stuck and do not extricate themselves in 60 seconds;
  • they are caught in a flashover;
  • they fall through the floor;
  • there is zero visibility and no contact with the hose or lifeline and the firefighter doesn’t know where the exit is;
  • the primary exit is blocked by fire or collapse and the firefighter is not at the secondary exit in 30 seconds;
  • the low-air alarm is activated and the firefighter  is not at an exit door or window in 30 seconds;
  • the firefighter cannot find the exit door or window in 60 seconds.

These nine points may be narrowed down to six:

  • Fall
  • Collapse
  • Activated (PASS/Low Air)
  • Caught
  • Lost
  • Trapped

Calling a mayday

  1. Notify your partner of the emergency situation and give LUNAR, then activate the PASS device.
  2. Then, press the EIB on the portable radio. If unable to press the EIB, or if radio is not equipped with EIB, go to Step 3.
  3. On the assigned tactical radio channel call mayday, mayday, mayday and give LUNAR.
  4. Activate PASS device after giving mayday information. Example: Unit presses the EIB on the portable radio and transmits mayday, mayday, mayday, second floor, Charlie, Delta corner, Engine 51, Brouwer, interior attack, air at 900 psi, pinned under collapse bring chainsaw, then activates PASS.

Additional steps

  • Use a tool to make noise.
  • Wave a flashlight to draw attention to location.
  • Preserve air supply.
  • Stay with partner.
  • Take actions to self evacuate (Escape).
  • If you cannot escape, retreat to an area of safety (Evade).
  • If you cannot escape, attempt to entrench in the area of danger.
  • Inform IC of any actions you take so RIT is updated on all efforts to escape, evade or entrench.

■ EIB-only mayday
A mayday may also be transmitted by pressing only the EIB, with no follow-up voice transmission. When only an EIB is activated (no voice transmission), dispatch will notify command of the activation. Command will make one attempt to contact the unit verbally.

If the unit does not acknowledge this attempt, the unit will be considered a mayday.

■ A witnessed report

In this situation, personnel witness a person or persons trapped (a fall through a roof or floor, firefighters caught in a flashover, etc.) and the witness(es) then declare a mayday.

A unit that is not accounted for in a PAR will be declared mayday.

■ The rest of the fire ground
All other units must continue their assigned operation unless the incident commander directs otherwise. This prevents freelancing and helps keep control of the fire incident. Direct knowledge of the mayday situation should be transmitted to the IC through the command structure.

■ Mayday, dispatch, alert tones
The IC will request dispatch to sound the pre-alert tone and switch all units, except the mayday personnel, the incident commander or the IC’s designee, and the RIT, to an alternate talk group. If the IC does not acknowledge a mayday, any unit hearing the call must alert the IC of the mayday. The IC will try to determine the exact location of the mayday personnel and order the RIT to intervene as necessary.

■ RIT assignment

The incident commander or the IC’s designee will assign the RIT and any other resources necessary to rescue the mayday personnel. If the IC or the IC’s designee cannot determine the exact location of the mayday personnel, the RIT should be sent to the last known location.

■ PAR after mayday declaration
Once all units (except the mayday personnel, the IC or the IC’s designee, and the RIT) have switched to an alternate talk group, command will conduct a PAR. Divisions/groups that do not report after two attempts will be considered mayday.
If divisions and groups have not been assigned, the PAR will be by unit.

■ When mayday is over
The IC will announce to all operating units and dispatch when the incident has stabilized and there is a return to normal operations.  Consider redirecting the incident action plan and incident priorities to a high priority search-and-rescue operation. Development of a rescue action plan is critical.

■ Additional resources
Consider requesting appropriate resources to meet the needs of the event as needed, including:

  • An additional alarm;
  • Command staff-aide;
  • General staff/operations;
  • Logistics and planning,
  • Specialized resources-technical rescue capability.
  • EMS

■ Reinforcing positions
Consider initiating and/or maintaining fire attack positions and reinforcing with extra alarm companies as needed.

■ Expanding command
Consider expanding the command organization. Requesting and assigning additional officers of an appropriate level to the
rescue area, fire attack area, command staff and other critical command positions.

■ Unassigned resources
Consider withdrawing unassigned resources from the rescue area.

■ Unauthorized access
Maintain strong supervision in all work areas. Control and restrict all unauthorized entries into the structure or search-and-rescue area.

Command presence

It is critical that the IC create a strong command presence.

Thank you in advance on behalf of all the future Canadian firefighters who will go home safely after each call.

Special thanks to Charleston Fire Department ( and in honour of the Charleston Nine), FDIC Atlantic, Montgomery County Fire Department,  Kelowna Fire Department.

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C. Contact Ed at

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