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Trainer’s Corner: What are your rules for calling mayday?

What are your rules for calling mayday?

December 7, 2007
By Ed Brouwer


between radio static, come the three most frightening words heard over
the fire ground radio, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday." Instantly a sick
feeling develops in the pit of your stomach, something has gone very
wrong and one of our own is in trouble.

During a recent Saving
Our Own training session we discovered that the hosting fire
departments did not have a "Mayday" protocol in place. I wondered how
many others were in the same situation.

According to one fire
fighter handbook the word "Mayday" is a code that indicates that a fire
fighter is lost, missing or requires immediate assistance.

"Mayday" is a universal call for help, indicating that an individual or
team is in extreme danger, you'd be hard pressed to find any real
instruction as to dealing with a "Mayday incident" let alone how to
call a "Mayday." Out of the three leading fire fighting instructional
manuals only one gives a clear understanding regarding a down fire
fighter's call for help. I could find no reference to the word "Mayday"
in Essentials of Fire Fighting. There was some info on emergency


Emergency Radio Traffic
At times it may
be necessary to broadcast emergency traffic (urgent message) over the
radio. When fire fighters radio that they are in distress, the
telecommunicator can make a significant difference in fire fighter
-Essentials of Fire Fighting

there is a significant difference between the two. Mayday is used to
report a fire fighter in trouble and requiring immediate assistance.
"Emergency traffic" is used to report a hazardous condition or

I found several references to "Mayday" in the Firefighter's Handbook.

Mayday: A universal call for help, indicating that an individual or team is in extreme danger. -Firefighter's Handbook

first step a firefighter should take in an entrapment is to get
assistance. Activation of a PASS device is warranted and the
declaration of a "Mayday" should be made over the radio. Some radios
are equipped with an emergency assist button. The Mayday will be
followed up with radio procedures and communications to get assistance
to the trapped firefighter – often via the rapid intervention team. -Firefighter's Handbook

Only Fundamentals Of Fire Fighter Skills contained a clear outline for initiating a "Mayday":

most important emergency traffic is a firefighter's call for help. Most
departments use "Mayday" to indicate that a firefighter is lost,
missing, or requires immediate assistance. If a Mayday call is heard on
the radio, all other radio traffic should stop immediately. The fire
fighter making the Mayday call should describe the situation, location,
and help needed.

Firefighters should study and practise the procedure for responding to a Mayday call.

An example of a Mayday call follows:

Firefighter: "Mayday… Mayday… Mayday"
All radio traffic stops
IC: "Unit calling Mayday go ahead."

"This is Engine Four. We are on the second floor and running out of
air. Fire has cut off our escape route. We request a ladder to the
window on Charlie side of the building."

IC: "Command copied
Engine Four, your escape route cut off by fire. I am sending the Rapid
Intervention Crew to Charlie side with a ladder."

Initiating a Mayday
Mayday message as described previously is used to indicate that a
firefighter is in trouble and needs immediate assistance. The analysis
of firefighter fatalities and serious injuries has shown that fire
fighters often wait until it is too late to call for assistance.

of initiating a Mayday when first getting into trouble, too often a
firefighter will wait until the situation is absolutely critical before
requesting assistance. This could be due to to a fear of embarrassment
if the situation turns out to be less severe than anticipated, combined
with a hope that the firefighter will be able to resolve the problem
without assistance.

The failure to act promptly can be fatal
in many situations. Systems have been designed to do everything
possible to protect firefighters and to rescue firefighters from
dangerous situations. These systems can only be effective if you act
appropriately when you find yourself in trouble. Do not hesitate to
call for help when you think you need it. To initiate a Mayday follow
the SOPs for your fire department. In most cases, this will involve
transmitting "Mayday-Mayday-Mayday" over the radio to initiate the

When acknowledged by the IC, clearly state your
identity, the nature of your problem, and your location or approximate
location. Manually activate your PASS device so that the other
firefighters can hear the signal and come to your location.

activate the emergency alert button on your portable radio, if it has
this feature. All of these actions will increase the probability that
the RIC or other firefighters will be able to locate you.

Fundamentals of Fire Fighter Skills
reason for our concern is that research confirms that rapid
intervention is not highly effective in responding to fire fighter
maydays. The average time to mobilize and locate a victim is more than
10 minutes. This normally exceeds the remaining air supply in the
victim's BA – especially if that victim waited to initiate the mayday
until after the onset of his/her low-air alarm.

Case studies
show, disoriented fire fighters will issue a mayday no sooner than the
activation of their low-air alarm. Best case scenario, this leaves four
to six minutes to be located by a RIT.

With more aggressive
tactics, hotter fires, lighter construction, and less live-fire
training, fire fighters are twice as likely to die inside structures as
they were 20 years ago. A leading cause of these line-of-duty deaths is
getting lost, trapped or disoriented.

I am glad to see
Canadian fire departments placing a greater emphasis on Saving Our Own.
In the past five years, we have taught fire fighter survival tactics
such as, wall breach and bailouts. More and more fire fighters are
carrying personal safety gear. We have taught our members the various
methods of rescuing a down fire fighter. Yet, it seems we've ignored
the most important first step, getting our fire fighters to recognize
the fact that they are in trouble and need help. They for the most part
do not know how to call mayday.

At your next practice you may
want to ask this question: When would you call mayday? Their lives may
well depend on this single decision.

Ed Brouwer is the Fire Chief/Training Officer for Canwest Fire and a
member of the Osoyoos (B.C.) Fire Dept. The 18-year veteran fire
fighter is also a Fire Warden with Ministry of Forests, a First
Responder III instructor/evaluator, Local Assistant to the Fire
Commissioner and a fire service motivational speaker and chaplain.
E-mail .

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