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The mayday compromise: Balance training between prevention and rescue

While self-rescue drills are vital, so too is mayday prevention training focused on fire dynamics, building construction, case studies and technology


To prevent maydays, we need a better understanding of how building construction impacts our tactical decisions.

Photo/Jason Caughey

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“Mayday” is the most impactful word that can be said or heard on any fireground. To hear a mayday call sends chills down even the most seasoned, hardened firefighter.

A fireground mayday is an intense emotional event that none of us want to occur on our watch. For me, the question becomes how we remain aggressive but limit our risk of having a mayday. And much like the story of a chicken and an egg, which came first? Do we spend more time training on preventing maydays or how to rescue ourselves from a mayday event? This is the big question, and the answer comes down to a compromise – it needs to be a little of both.

There are a lot of self-rescue classes and standard operating guidelines (SOGs) on how to manage a mayday event. All of these are great and need to be in your training rotation to stay proficient. However, there is a bigger picture that we should address – the need for more focused training on preventing maydays through better understanding of fire dynamics, building construction, case studies and technology. Let’s consider how each topic connects to mayday events.

Fire dynamics

It once took decades for a firefighter to learn and understand fire behavior because they had to learn it on the job. Today, we have vast library of research and data to help our firefighters build a foundation of fire dynamics knowledge. True, real-world experience is still needed to validate and support the data and research, but our firefighters can be better prepared today to predict changing conditions. Fire dynamics simply must be a part of our initial training and continued education in the fire service. It is the single most important factor that we can impact to limit placing ourselves in a mayday event.

Building construction

Over the last 50 years, building construction has changed. From residential to commercial occupancies, the battle ground for firefighters has changed, and for many organizations, our training and fireground operations have not. To prevent maydays, we need a better understanding of how building construction impacts our tactical decisions. We must train on the risks associated with buildings in your first due.

Case studies

Case studies play a huge part in preventing maydays. The data and stories that come out of tragic events must be studied and incorporated into training and fireground operations. Think of the Hackensack Ford fire in 1988. The details of this tragic event were shared across the country for decades to reinforce the need to better understand bow string truss buildings. We need to share more of these events so that we can expand our knowledge and strengthen our decision-making.


As world continues to change and advance, we must continue to employ technology for the benefit of our performance and the safety of our community and firefighters. We, as a fire service, tend to hold onto tradition, and that is important. However, tradition cannot impede us from using technology to better serve our community. Consider the impacts of thermal-imaging cameras, radio communication, tablets, piercing nozzles, drones and even robots. We must continue embrace and employ such technology to advance our performance. Firefighters will never be replaced by technology, but we must adapt and utilize technology where it fits in our system and quit holding onto the “how we have always done it” mentality.

Shift the focus

When it comes to maydays, there needs to be a focus on training how to prevent maydays while being aggressive. There will still be a need to learn the task level skills of how to manage and escape a mayday event. But by focusing on mayday prevention, we can make a great impact on our community and firefighters.

Jason Caughey is the fire chief of the Laramie County Fire Authority in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and an adjunct professor for Laramie County Community College, where he teaches on the principles of fire behavior. Prior to arriving in Cheyenne in 2011, he was the fire chief of Gore Hill Fire Rescue in Great Falls, Montana. He also spent 10 years working for the Montana Fire Services Training School as a regional instructor and regional training manager for the state of Montana. Caughey has been an active member in the “Kill the Flashover” project, led by Joe Starnes. He is also a current technical member of the UL Positive Pressure test committee and a lead instructor for the Ottawa Project “Knowledge to Practice.” Caughey has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and is working on his master’s degree in public administration. He is currently attending the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Connect with Caughey on LinkedIn or via email.