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Commanding a mayday event

ICs need training reps to practice strategic deployment of resources, backup plans and communication skills


“Chief officers owe it to themselves and their members to routinely practice their command skill set,” writes Odegard.

Photo/John Odegard

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I trained on rapid intervention team (RIT) evolutions pretty frequently as a firefighter. And this training was even more frequent when I was an officer, as we seemed to routinely have a probationary member at the station who needed to learn our emergency procedures and gain some valuable training reps.

Now as a battalion chief, I realize the importance of learning how to effectively command a mayday incident. No longer am I the member of a company who is experiencing the emergency, but rather the person coordinating my crew’s safety. Chief officers owe it to themselves and their members to routinely practice this command skill set.

With this as our backdrop, let’s review some mayday statistics, the possibility of redeploying resources, and why having a mayday worksheet is a must for the incident commander. At the end of the article, download a copy of the “Mayday Playbook” to use as a mayday command cheat sheet.

Project Mayday stats

Project Mayday is really a powerful program. Kudos to Don Abbott for creating a database focused specifically on mayday events and contributing factors.

The project collects data from career and volunteer departments. The 2020 career statistics on mayday rescues tell us that only 6.6% of rescues were performed by the RIT, while 35% was self-rescue, 26% was the victim’s crew, and 25% was completed by another “interior crew.”

Other important details from the research:

  • The largest percentage of maydays occurred between 0000-0300 hrs.
  • The initial-arriving company was most commonly involved.
  • Over 50% of mayday incidents did not have an initial 360 conducted.

Routine training doesn’t cut it

Almost every RIT/mayday training scenario was, quite simply, too routine. We would respond as a RIT, find the lost, injured or trapped firefighter, and then successfully work through the problem and remove the firefighter from harm. We never trained for failure. Think about that. Have you recently participated in a training evolution that didn’t work out in the end, where plan A failed, causing you to pivot to plan B or even to plan C? We always “win” while training, and RIT evolutions are no exception.

After studying the statistics from Project Mayday, I shifted my training priorities as a company officer toward self-rescue air-consumption drilling and rescue techniques as interior operating companies. Most of our training focused on solving personal emergencies, meaning how to recover and respond to a bad situation as a singular member or company. We also worked on RIT procedures as a company, and learning to troubleshoot another member’s emergency, or remove them from the structure as part of an operating company instead of a RIT team – the company training evolutions that were supported from statistics by Project Mayday.


Chief officers must work through training scenarios to prepare for mayday incidents. Study LODD reports, listen to recorded mayday radio traffic, and review the research from Project Mayday.

Photo/Spokane Fire Department Media Services

Strategic redeployment of resources

If a significant number of mayday emergencies are effectively mitigated by other interior companies, then why would the IC not redeploy operating units to aid the stricken member in addition to the RIT team? The reflex time is minimal in comparison to the time it takes to deploy a RIT team. Yes, there are factors that can affect response from other interior companies, for example, companies engaged in active firefighting. But isn’t the primary role of the initial RIT team to locate and assess the needs for the mayday firefighter? And yes, I say initial RIT, as a significantly trapped, unconscious or severely injured firefighter(s) may take several personnel to efficiently remove the member in addition to the initial RIT.

Here’s a story that may cause you to seriously consider this idea of redeploying primary search companies to assist with RIT: Yearly, we conduct a multi-company live-fire drill inside our three-story burn building. We never simultaneous practice or build in a mayday scenario into our live-fire evolutions. This is done to prevent confusion and for the safety of our participating members who could miss or fail to respond to a potential emergency appropriately.

About 15 minutes into the training evolution, a mayday was transmitted over the radio for a member experiencing a medical emergency – a member inside the burn building who had been assigned to the second hoseline. I acknowledged the emergency and predictably deployed our RIT. However, our member was immediately located and removed by another company within a minute or two of the radio broadcasts – the interior company that was assigned to primary search. The RIT team never masked up, and all ended well.

ICs need training reps, too

Remember all the RIT scenarios you got to conquer as a firefighter and company officer? Well, how many reps have you been able to get in as shift commander? Does your department build in scenarios to bolster your command skills for such an event?

Unfortunately, we probably don’t receive the preparation we all need to be totally prepared for a mayday incident. As chief officers, we owe it to ourselves and our crews to work through training scenarios as an incident commander. Study LODD reports, listen to recorded mayday radio traffic, read the research information from Project Mayday. These are all valuable resources that can assist you in your preparation. Participate in company training evolutions. Be the voice on the other end of the radio as your members conduct drills. If you have the opportunity to schedule multi-company RIT training, do it and learn.

Have a cheat sheet

Of course, you’re not going to remember every procedure during an emergency as an incident commander. A fireground mayday is one of those events that can rattle even the most seasoned of ICs. As such, it’s important to have a quick reference sheet to assist you through the process of commanding an incident scene with a mayday. Does your department have a template for you to utilize or even an established procedure? Even if it’s basic, it will be better than looking a blank piece of paper or command board while your hands are shaking, your heart is pounding, and the stress of the scenario overwhelms you.

You can tailor almost every basic command sheet to transform it into a mayday template. Important benchmarks and orders need to be included so it can function as both an operational checklist and command board during the event.

I hope all of this information is helpful to you. The goal is to be prepared to handle a worst-case scenario as an incident commander.

Fill out the form below to download a copy of the “Mayday Playbook” to serve as a mayday command cheat sheet.

Vince Bettinazzi joined the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Fire Department in 2007. He currently holds the rank of battalion chief and is assigned as a shift commander on C-Shift. Bettinazzi is a member of the department’s Ocean Rescue Team as a certified USLA lifeguard. He completed the NFA’s Managing Officer Program in 2016, and recently obtained his Chief Fire Officer Designation from CPSE. Bettinazzi is a co-host on the “Beyond the Stretch” podcast.