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Practice makes automatic: Simple mayday training to instill good habits

Starting with mayday basics, like when and how to call a mayday, primes them for actual emergencies and sets a foundation for more advanced training


Photo/City of Miami Fire Department

This article was originally published in the digital edition “The Mayday Training Evolution.” Download the full edition for more mayday content.

Article highlights

  • Fireground fatalities may be down, but the rate of fireground injuries remains unchanged, indicating the likelihood of encountering a mayday situation is still significant.
  • Failure of building construction components and larger floor plans in modern homes contribute to firefighter injuries and disorientation.
  • Mayday training should focus on recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM) to match the brain’s response in high-stress situations.
  • Building a library of experiences through realistic training can automate responses during mayday situations.
  • Effective mayday training involves simulating various scenarios, practicing radio calls, low-air alarms, orientation, and trapped situations to develop proper responses and habits. Recent training evolutions have shown success in integrating mayday parameters into a larger incident simulation.

When was the last time you drilled on how to call a mayday? No one likes to admit that they might find themselves in that situation, but it can happen to any of us.

While fireground fatalities are down, the rate of fireground injuries from the 1970s through today is virtually unchanged. This means that the odds of finding ourselves in a mayday situation are just as likely now as ever, regardless of improvements in turnout gear and other fireground technologies.


Photo/City of Miami Fire Department

Photo/City of Miami Fire Department

Looking at trends from fireground injuries and fatalities, it’s clear that failure of building construction components is increasingly the cause of firefighters becoming injured or trapped. Plus, larger floor plans and open spaces in homes can be challenging to search, leading to disorientation. The fire environment has become more volatile, and we can find ourselves in a flow path with untenable temperatures. All of these situations can lead to a mayday call.

Once this happens, we enter a completely new place. Stress levels increase, sometimes to a point where we are incapable of rational thought. We can easily miss visual and audible cues. Our minds revert to skills that are “hardwired” into us – our training. And if our mayday training doesn’t match the situation we find ourselves in, we could be in serious trouble.

How we learn

Training on calling a mayday is not difficult, but it must be done correctly to be effective.

When faced with a problem in a stressful, time-compressed environment, our brain uses a different process than our everyday decision-making. A normal decision-making process will see us develop multiple options, weighing the pros and cons and deciding on the best option. In a mayday situation, our brains shift to recognition-primed decision-making (RPDM).

First described by Dr. Gary Klein in 1993 while studying military officers, in RPDM, the brain – outside of conscious awareness – tries to match the current situation with a prior experience. Your brain essentially runs a short simulation of past experiences, and if one seems like a fit, you are prompted to go with that path of action.

Practice makes automatic

How do we build this library of experiences so we can rely on them later? We practice as many situations as possible in realistic conditions.

At the simplest level, in recruit school, we train on turning on the SCBA bottle and clicking on the regulator so often to ensure that in any interaction with your SCBA, your brain knows what can happen if you forget those steps. If it happens again, you instantly know what’s wrong (the bottle is off) and how to remedy it (turn it on) without thinking about it. It’s been drilled into your memory.

The key for the process to work: The experience has to match the actual situation. Your brain will throw out the match if it thinks it’s different from your situation. The good news is that we don’t need to have an entire crew, a live-fire training center and simulated victims every time we conduct mayday training. Those elements can be helpful, but the individual experiences can be simulated even more simply.

Start by determining when you would expect a firefighter to call a mayday. We can’t expect firefighters in that situation to make a calm, rational decision about whether they should call a mayday. As such, we need to predetermine and front load those situations to automate them. Plus, let’s be honest, we are not always the best at admitting we need help, so having a predetermined list of mayday situations simplifies the decision-making process, and removes some of the ego that could interfere.

Here’s the list of mayday situations I have used in training:

  • If you are lost or disoriented and can’t immediately recover, call a mayday.
  • If you have a fall of any distance, call a mayday.
  • If your low-air alarm sounds and you are still in an IDLH environment, call a mayday.
  • If you are stuck or trapped and can’t free yourself immediately, call a mayday.

Read through LODD or serious incident reports that involve a mayday or RIT/RIC assignment. In some situations, the person involved may rescue themselves quickly. That’s OK. There’s no reason to wait to call a mayday. Time is not on our side, and it always takes many more responders than we can imagine to effect a rescue. The best scenario is to call the mayday early, then self-rescue, and run into the RIC crew on the way out, or be able to call and cancel the need for assistance.

Remember: When we are stuck, fall or are disoriented in a fire environment, we are generally unaware of how stuck or lost we are or the distance of our fall. So, rather than spending time trying to analyze these details, just call the mayday and get help coming. This gives rescuers and you, the downed firefighter, more time and more options.

Training time: How to call a mayday

Knowing that we need to train under realistic conditions, we can develop a plan to recreate these situations in the station. This is easy to do and can be accomplished as stand-alone training or integrated into other training evolutions.

Step 1: Gear up. Ensure firefighters are in their full PPE, wearing SCBA and have a department radio. This is an important step because we need the training to match the potential mayday situation. They aren’t going to be in a mayday situation wearing shorts and a T-shirt while using an invisible radio.

Step 2: Select each mayday parameter you want to train on – and recreate it. We want to elevate stress slightly so they have to work in a stressful situation that degrades their ability to reason. Notice I said slightly. I do not advocate over-the-top training designed to scare members. There are near-miss reports of firefighters that suffered from PTSD due to a violent training scenario. This is unacceptable and not professional. Removing some vision and having firefighters work until they get hot in their gear is enough to stress almost anyone. Have members make a radio call and set off their SCBA PASS alarm to help cement the situation. Many times there is an on-scene, tactical or even a training channel that can be used for this. Just make sure to coordinate with dispatch and neighboring agencies.

Step 3: Practice what to say on the radio. Again, standardizing the response is key here. Use an acronym, such as UCAN or LUNAR, or the simple “Who, What, Where” model.


  • Unit – Apparatus or ICS assignment (E-21 captain or Division 2 search)
  • Conditions – What are you experiencing? What triggered the mayday?
  • Actions/Air – How much air do you have?
  • Needs – What assistance do you need?


  • Last name
  • Unit
  • Needs
  • Actions/air
  • Resources that are needed

Who, What, Where

  • Who – Identify yourself
  • What – What happened?
  • Where – Where are you? Or where do you think you are?

No matter which model you employ during training, having a standardized approach will help ensure that the member’s experience will default to these words so they don’t have to think too hard to remember what information to relay. You could even come up with your own list. Just pick one, stick with it, and train to it.

Training time: After the call

The next step in training is to simulate what happens after the mayday is called.

PASS devices: Have firefighters practice turning on their PASS device so others can locate them. Also, have firefighters practice turning their PASS off if they need to make further radio calls. Even these motor skills can be difficult to remember under stress. Plus, remind members that if they can’t reach the alarm for some reason, they should remain motionless so the PASS automatically activates.

Orientation: Have a firefighter search a room or apparatus bay to simulate being lost. They can keep working to solve the problem and become oriented. At some point, the instructor can spin the firefighter around while they are crawling or move them to a new area, then ask the firefighter to find the exit or another landmark. If firefighters can’t answer correctly, they need to call a mayday.

Props: A fall prop can be easy to construct, allowing the firefighter to feel themselves falling a short distance to trigger the proper mayday response. A prop with steps, a trap door that can be triggered, or a teeter-totter type prop are good options. Just remember to use adequate padding, such as a mattress, to prevent injury or equipment damage in these scenarios.


Props can be easy to construct. Just remember to use adequate padding, such as a mattress, to prevent injury or equipment damage in these scenarios.

Photo/Spokane Fire Department

Low air: Simulating a low-air alarm can be as simple as giving the firefighter in full gear a bottle with a depleted air supply. You don’t need the firefighter to entirely run out of air; just hit their low air alarm. If you start a search training with a bottle less than half-full, you should quickly hit your low-air alarm, prompting the member to call a mayday. Note: Sometimes this is the training – just getting the member to call the mayday, nothing more.

Trapped: To simulate being stuck or trapped, have a firefighter search in a degraded visual environment and then put the firefighter in an entanglement prop, or use a salvage tarp or small mattress to push and hold the firefighter down. This will require them to determine that they are stuck and to call the mayday. In addition, they may be in a difficult position to access their radio or PASS, further simulating an actual scenario. Watch out, though; this can be a trigger for some to panic, so take it easy.

Instructor guidance

In all of these situations, observe the students. We want to dial the stress down and coach people before they make a wrong move. Taking gloves off or ripping off an SCBA mask creates a slide that could resurface in a real emergency. Don’t let it get to that point. Start slow, and when someone is struggling, stop the scenario and have them calm down before being told step by step what to do. Then, on subsequent evolutions, you can pick up speed and intensity.

No one learns anything getting yelled at in a stressful, mock emergency, and we can even ingrain bad habits that could be fatal later. There have been many fallen firefighters found without gloves and air masks. The drive to breathe is powerful, but we don’t want to predispose someone to take this action because of an ill-managed training scenario.

Recent training evolutions

Once firefighters have trained and practiced these situations, you can integrate them into a larger scenario to better simulate how it would develop on an actual incident. My department’s recent training was an example of how to accomplish this.


Once firefighters have trained and practiced on mayday basics, you can integrate these skills into a larger scenario to better simulate how it would develop on an actual incident. A more advanced drill might involve an acquired structure – a single-family house – where crewmembers must remove a downed firefighter from the structure and begin treatment.

Photos/Spokane Fire Department

Our department used an acquired structure – a single-family house – for our training. With a very short timeline before demolition, we decided to use it for a hands-on simulation of a standard fire response while integrating mayday parameters. We planned the following evolutions:

  • Initial attack to a bedroom fire using a fire simulation system and smoke machine. Crews entered and practiced locating and flowing water on the fire.
  • Upstairs search team to back up the initial attack crew.
  • Vertical ventilation team on the roof.
  • Basement search team.
  • RIT/RIC crew that responded to a mock mayday.

The scenario started with the apparatus arriving at the incident location in a staged fashion to simulate an actual response. As the crews deployed to the house and accomplished training goals, instructors prompted crews that encountered mayday parameters to call a mayday. We had one instructor acting as dispatch to answer radio traffic as well.

Once the mayday was declared, command conducted a PAR and instituted radio channel changes. All the while, the mock dispatcher continued to add a level of stress to the situation. The RIT team moved into the home, and located and packaged the patients and removed them from the structure.

This resulted in an excellent opportunity to rehearse our emergency and mayday procedures in a realistic situation and build the correct experiences for our crews. It was very low cost and relatively easy to plan and organize. We kept the scenario simple as a standard room and contents fire, and used realistic mayday parameters. It was evident by the crews’ reactions at times that the training felt genuine, and they were absorbing the lessons.

Make it happen

It’s not challenging to provide high-fidelity mayday training for your firefighters, and doing so may offer a vital experience for them to recount during a fireground emergency. Define your parameters, practice the procedures, and ensure it’s realistic. You will prepare your folks to succeed when it’s truly life or death.

Andrew Beck is a firefighter/EMT and shift training officer with the Mandan City (N.D.) Fire Department. Beck is a live burn instructor and teaches thermal imaging and fire dynamics across N.D. He is also the Mountain Operations manager at Huff Hills Ski Area, where he leads the outside operations teams. Beck has a background in crew resource management and has completed research on how people and organizations operate in stressful environments. Beck was previously a staff member for the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System.