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Chiefs, is your department prepared for a mayday incident?

Your job is to make sure that you have put all the pieces in place to address a mayday before, during and after the incident


Your job as the fire chief is to make sure that you have put all the pieces in place to address the mayday if it occurs.

Photo/Scott D. Kerwood

Download the FireRescue1 digital edition “Your Mayday Survival Guide” for additional mayday resources.

We all have bad days as fire chief. Whether it’s a tough day at city hall, a personnel issue that seems to never go away or a citizen who is unhappy with the service provided, we all work through myriad challenges in this role. We have studied and prepared ourselves to address these situations.

But what if you have a tough day that involves a mayday situation – a situation that one or more of your members may not survive? Are your knowledge, skills and abilities ready to lead the organization through this event? Have you prepared them, and you, for the three most horrific words that you will ever hear uttered on the fireground? “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY!”

As a chief officer, we have a responsibility to prepare our members to respond to the needs of our citizens. It doesn’t matter if it’s a COVID-19 emergency, a hazmat spill or a structure fire, we train, and then train again, to be the best that we can be. We prepare our organization to help people in their time of need. But what about when we need help? Have we done everything within our power as fire chiefs to make sure that our members can save our own?

Pieces of the training puzzle

The fire service has spent a lot of time, energy and money making sure that we know how to rescue a downed or trapped firefighter. And now, the mayday, self-rescue and rapid intervention lexicon is a part of our regular fire service training and operations. We introduce these techniques to our newest members the minute they go through rookie school, and we continue to carry these themes throughout their career so they understand the importance of training to save our own.

This new normal, coupled with the increased consciousness about the need to operate safely on the fireground, is grounded by several NFPA standards.

NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, Health, and Wellness Program (2021 ed.) directs “use of the term mayday as a requirement when a fire department member finds him- or herself requiring immediate assistance.”

NFPA 1561: Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety (2020 ed.) further addresses “prevent[ing] the ‘incident within an incident’” through the practice of managing emergencies or maydays at large-scale incidents. It states: “It is imperative that the incident commander stays in control of the entire incident and not become overly committed to the emergency. This can be accomplished by assigning a supervisor or rapid intervention group to the emergency.”

NFPA 1407: Standard for Training Fire Service Rapid Intervention Crews (2020 ed.) identifies the hands-on program needs to get members ready for the incident within the incident. This standard provides the kinesthetic-tactile learning environment that our members can commit to memory through repetition on what they should do to save one another. Specifically, the standard details that rapid intervention training program shall include, at a minimum, the following topics for personal and crew-oriented skills training and evaluation:

  • Declaring mayday
  • Search techniques
  • Access and extrication
  • Air supply
  • Ropes
  • Protecting downed firefighter(s) in place
  • Moving downed firefighter(s) to safety
  • Firefighter self-rescue techniques

Further, at the national fire service association level, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), shepherded by the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section (SHS) focused the 2017 Safety Stand Down on “activities on those critical skills required of individual firefighters to recognize when they are in a mayday situation; [and] the skills they need as an individual to remove themselves from the situation (self-rescue).”

For the command staff, the Blue Card Hazard Zone Management System offers a continuing education module in its Type 4 and Type 5 incident management program. For the incident commander who will have to manage a mayday, this module allows them the opportunity to practice their radio traffic and resource management needed to operate in this high-stress environment. Often the forgotten member of the mayday training scenario, the incident commander, regardless of rank, is the person who must ensure that the resources get to the firefighters who need help.

Your job as the fire chief is to make sure that you have put all the pieces in place to address the mayday if it occurs.

“Mayday Monday”

Here at Hutto Fire Rescue, each week we train to prevent and respond to these events. Every Monday is “Mayday Monday.” During those training sessions, crews drill on something involving extricating downed firefighters. These drills may be hands-on entanglement drills, removing an incapacitated firefighter down a ground ladder, or practicing bail-out drills.

Our weekly drills sometimes take place inside the classroom instead of on the training field. These classroom trainings involve a review of various resources:

Monday Mayday drills may also involve working with our dispatch center to conduct radio drills for mayday events.

After the mayday

Learning how to manage your department’s worst day is important, but remember, you must also be ready for what comes after the mayday event.

Ensure that your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and critical incident management programs are solid and your peer support network is functional. NFPA 1500 notes that you must have a program in your safety, health, and wellness program to address the occupational exposure to atypical stressful events. This type of firefighter rescue event falls into that category.

Further, you must have services in place to address a line-of-duty (LODD). Grief will permeate your organization, especially if there is a loss of a member because the rescue is not successful.

As fire chief, you must be willing to learn from the incident and share the lessons with others. It is tough to put ourselves on display to the rest of the world when we make a mistake. But it is important for you to be willing to put your fire department in front of everyone and discuss what went wrong and what changes are being made to prevent a similar situation. In the Blue Card Hazard Zone Management System, CE Module #9 – Mayday Operations, the late Chief Alan Brunacini notes that following the Brett Tarver LODD, the Phoenix Fire Department reviewed the incident to identify changes they needed to make to their policies for rescuing a downed firefighter. So, for your event, regardless of whether the results are good or bad, help other fire chiefs and fire departments from repeating your mistakes.

“Everyone Goes Home”

As the fire chief, you have a responsibility to look out for the wellness of your members – the whole person. You must send them home the same way they came to work. That means focused training on how to prevent mayday incidents and how to mitigate such events if and when they do occur. When tragedy strikes, it’s imperative to provide resources that address member wellness. Have policies and practices in place to address both the physical and mental aspect of a mayday. Remember, your job as the fire chief is to make sure that “Everyone Goes Home.”

Stay safe!

Download a mayday tactical worksheet here: