2 firefighter maydays and Jupiter's gravity

Commanding and running a real mayday happens at a speed and force that instruction cannot replicate


It was snowing. Not a lot of snow, just enough that you make sure to take it easy on the curves. It was dark. Not the surreal inky blackness that sometimes consumes the night and not yet the softer black just before dawn.

This was the first mayday.

It was raining. Not a lot of rain but just enough that you make sure to take it easy on the curves. It was dark. Not the surreal inky blackness that sometimes consumes the night and not yet the softer black just before dawn.

This was the second mayday.

A day on Jupiter is just shy of 10 hours long. Time moves faster there. A year on Jupiter is 12 Earth years long. Days move faster there but years pass more slowly.

There was this unexplainable but unavoidable sense of urgency. I could feel my heart pounding. I could feel my foot pressing the accelerator. I could feel gravity pulling me to the edge of the curves — slower and faster all at once.

I could hear it. I could taste it. I could taste anxiety. It was real. When things are real, real in this way at least, you can sometimes taste them.

This was both maydays.

Life on Jupiter
When a firefighter gets into trouble, needs help, is overcome, lost, hurt, tired or whatever the problem may be, there is always supposed to be a team ready, primed and poised to go get them. Go into a building that just swallowed a firefighter and bring them out alive, rapidly.

This situation is frightening, and the term used to denote that special kind of frightening in a slightly more euphemistic way is mayday. Call a mayday and we are coming to get you, don't you worry. We won't stop until our hearts explode or we die.

And this happens. It happens sometimes that people die trying to save people from dying. I don't want that. We don't want that.

Jupiter's gravity is 2.4 times that of earth. If you weighed 220 pounds on Earth, then you would weigh 529 pounds on Jupiter.

The maydays were over as fast as they started. We took action. They took action. The firefighter's teammates saved him from the hole and the others saved themselves.

We took action, which is to say, we moved with purpose while enveloped in the viscous fog common to complex events full of uncertainty. We moved 2.4 times more slowly than usual. We suppressed emotion just enough, make a year stretch to 12, just enough to execute. 

They lived; we crashed.

Gravity of the situation
The one was a pretty big deal. It was cinematic. The whole building fell down — flash, loud crashing noise, cloud of smoke. It was burning. We thought they were dead. Denouement.

I suspect if it were really a movie it would only be a run at Halloween. Best to wait until after the children are asleep. Real terror tends to be more terrifying. So it goes, best not to take chances, wait until the children are asleep.

It was grace, unmerited, like real grace is. They lived. We were glad to be wrong — exhausted and glad.

I have been on a few maydays, some called by that name, others not, some I was in charge of, most not. I have been on enough to know how the force of gravity grows noticeably after that phrase is uttered.

We say it three times: mayday, mayday, mayday. The first time to make you listen, the second time to make it real and the third time to help you pry your feet off the ground.

So a few days ago, I find that I am in a room with some people who have never been on a mayday or in charge of mayday or in real trouble themselves, a Jupiter kind of trouble.

Trapped on a distant planet
These are people who think all darkness is the same, that you can't taste anxiety and that gravity is a universal constant.

I listened to the rhetoric about what must be done, what should be done, how it should be done and who should do it. It's a rhetoric that buzzes like that fridge in that Radiohead song.

They still think that beating a mayday, snatching your friend out of the building before he dies, has to do with your planning, your execution, your situational awareness, as if.

It is my experience that the mayday, like so many other things — at least the more real things, the visceral punch you in the gut things — is really two things at once. It is Jupiter and it is Earth.

The people hearing the mayday hear it on Jupiter. The people saying it say it on Jupiter. And all the training and all the discussion and all the endless critiquing happen on Earth.

No matter how good the guy telling the story is with words and no matter how many pictures and videos he uses, the story is always told back on Earth. And it is never the same as the real story, because the real story happened a few planets away.

Because I have been on a few maydays, some called by that name, others not, some I was in charge of, most not, I feel compelled to warn others about how you can feel it, smell it and taste it.

And perhaps I concede that action is necessary without being able to move, because the gravity of Jupiter is nothing to take lightly. 

About the author

Charles Bailey is a career Battalion Chief in Md. with nearly 20 years of active service. His hope it that firefighters everywhere will begin to ask hard questions about their operational behaviors and obligations to society using sound science mixed with common sense. Charles won the award for Best Web Column/Trade at the Western Publishing Association’s 2011 Maggie Awards, which honor the best print publications and websites in the Western United States. You can contact Charles with feedback at Charles.Bailey@FireRescue1.com.

  1. Tags
  2. Safety
  3. Exclusives
  4. Mayday
  5. Fire Chief

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Lifestyle

logo for print