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How to survive: Structural-caused mayday events

Your crewmembers are your lifeline to survival, so communicate as much as possible


Photo/Medford (Massachusetts) Fire Department

By Bryan Norris

We make our living being in places that others do not want to be, as well as solving problems that most cannot. This comes with being a highly motivated, adaptable, organized, trained, compassionate, and courageous workforce designed to handle whatever issue is thrown our way. Fortunately, even in an environment where it seems like everything is trying to hurt or kill us, there are actions we can take to avoid catastrophe.

One such catastrophe is the structural-caused mayday – emergency situations caused by operating on the interior of a failing, damaged or dilapidated structure on fire. We will address the dangers of objects that fall from above, missing or expected building components, and unstable or failing floor structures that cause us to fall.

Now, before you assume I’m “just another chief telling us not to make an interior attack,” that is not the case. I am a proponent of aggressive interior attacks when appropriate, organized and calculated. However, I also believe that there is no building worth the life of a firefighter.


Preparation is key to ensuring personnel have the information and skills needed to make operational and tactical decisions on the fireground. Policies and tactical procedures are the obvious start to the preparation process. These documents are written as a plan on how to handle mayday situations consistently throughout your area and can be the difference between a successful operation and tragedy.

Training your firefighters on how to call for a mayday if they get in trouble should be ingrained in them. Firefighters should also be trained on how to safely move through zero-visibility areas and how to use tools such as thermal imagers to identify hazards in the structure and around them.

One element of training that is often overlooked involves how the incident commander should handle a mayday situation. ICs can become complacent in this area; however, this is one of the most stressful things you will manage on the fireground. Your firefighters should feel certain and be able to take comfort that ICs know how to compose themselves and handle this situation. This takes practice, simulations and live drills for the ICs on how to direct several units and think through policies and procedures while addressing changing tactical priorities to develop their skill set.

Another key to preparation is gathering information about buildings in your response area. Preplanning is not an attractive assignment, but it could save your life. We are looking for anything in the building that could lead to an issue during fireground operations. This would include, but is not limited to, missing or altered building materials, damage or degradation of structural components, anticipated fire flow paths, and operational fire suppression systems. Essentially, we expect certain things when we enter a structure. What can you identify that is not expected? How are these unexpected things going to harm firefighters or affect the fire flow paths in the structure?

Building officials or the fire marshal are other sources of information for identifying dangerous structures. Many cities have systems that identify dangerous structures on the exterior through markings or signage; however, this is usually limited to commercial structures. Degraded residential structures can offer the same dangers as commercial structures but without the benefit of the warnings.

On scene

Upon arrival at the scene of a working fire, your size-up of the structure is an important step in the mitigation of that incident and can go a long way toward the safety of firefighters on the fireground. Look at the building and what is happening. How big is the building? Where is the seat of the fire? Does the structure look well maintained? Is the structure occupied full time? For the type of occupancy, does what you see match what you would expect to see? Many structural hazards that we face have clues before you step inside of the building, look for them. Do a 360-degree look at the building. Is there anything different that you did not expect? During your initial look at the fire, risk analysis begins, and contrary to many beliefs, risk assessment should happen consistently during the incident. What are we risking versus what are we saving? It is a simple question, but not answering it or not paying attention to the answer has cost the lives of many firefighters.

Many times, when we enter a structure with zero visibility, we make assumptions about what to expect. We assume that the floor is intact, that the structural members are going to hold up things above us, and that all the building components, such as stairs and elevators, are there. Assumptions can be very dangerous, even deadly, under these conditions.

Apply the knowledge from your preplans and your size-up to your movements through the structure. Where are there most likely storage areas above your head? What heavy building components are above where you are operating? A ceiling fan falling on you hurts, but that box of tile that the homeowner stored in the attic hurts worse. What is above you is important.

Another major risk in structures is missing or damaged floors. I have been the victim of falling through a weakened floor in a structure; fortunately, both instances were in mobile homes with the ground only a few feet down, so I was OK. Holes in floors, missing staircases and doors that lead to nowhere can all have catastrophic consequences for firefighters. Learn how to move in zero visibility to ensure there is an intact floor in the area you are working in. Utilize techniques that keep you safe, available technology, and tools that are provided to move safely and efficiently in zero visibility. You should know from your size-up if you are working in an elevated position. While inside, use all of your senses to be alert to dangers in the structure. Feel for hazards, listen for creaking or other inappropriate noises from the structure, and watch for fire behavior above or below you. Everyone on that crew is important and should say something if you know something. Officers, this is where you are most important. Watch over your crew; they will be focused on the task, so you must focus on what is happening around you.

The mayday

Even when we do everything correctly, there will still be times when we must take actions that can be the difference between life and death.

  • Calm your thinking and control your mindset. When the mayday happens, emotions will be high, but emotional decisions often have negative results.
  • Saving a firefighter is going to take everyone on the fireground, so get your head in the game and be a part of the plan.
  • Don’t forget to fight the fire. This will help control the environment and lengthen the timeframe to make a rescue.
  • ICs, call for more help and establish a strong command structure that can handle passionate firefighters. Also, understand that the decisions you will make will be some of the most important and some of the most difficult in your life. Do not get caught up in passion, and do not stop thinking.

For the firefighters inside, we act tough and walk tall, but understand that these situations are scary. Use that emotion to your advantage. Some additional tips:

  • Keep from going where you do not want to go at all costs. If you are going through a floor, try not to fall all the way down; you have no idea how far it is or what you are falling onto.
  • Your crewmembers are your lifeline to survival, so communicate as much as possible. Understand that finding the firefighter that is in distress is the hardest part of these types of maydays. Having as much information about your location as possible is imperative, such as how far you fell, what conditions are like in the area, and what path you took before the event happened are great clues for teams looking for you.
  • If you are mobile, find a wall and look for exits or places of safe refuge.
  • Communicate your remaining air pressure and set off your PASS device.
  • Use your emotions, but do not stop thinking through the situation, and use your training.

Final thoughts

Fire departments spend a tremendous amount of time teaching firefighters what to do when they become a victim in their environment, and rightfully so. However, there should also be focus on how to stay out of these situations. We have an inherently dangerous job, but there are things that we can do to make it safer. While actual firefighting is the adventurous and attractive part of our job, preplanning, prevention and training can make the adventure safer.

About the author
Bryan Norris the deputy chief of Support Services with the San Antonio (Texas) Fire Department and the emergency management coordinator for the city of San Antonio with over 30 years of experience in the fire and EMS services. Before his appointment to deputy chief, Norris served the SAFD as the executive officer of emergency services, planning and analytics division chief, and accreditation manager. Norris is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is a credentialed Chief Fire Officer through the Commission on Professional Credentialing. Norris also serves as a peer assessment team lead for the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) and the vice-chairperson of the Texas CPSE Consortium. Norris has served on the IAFF Standing Committee for EMS and the boards of several professional organizations. With the SAFD, Norris has been an integral part in the establishment of several programs to include the Quartermaster Gear Delivery Model, the Clinical Dispatcher Program, the Community Risk Reduction Division, and several COVID-19 programs.