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You have mayday policies and procedures. Now what?

How to implement mayday-focused policies in an actionable and relatable way that builds muscle memory for these events


“By conducting annual or semi-annual mayday training, firefighters will instinctively learn how to react to a mayday situation,” writes Vatter.

Photo/City of Miami Fire

How does your agency train firefighters to call a mayday? It ultimately begins with policies and procedures.

Hopefully, you already have policies and procedures related to mayday events. If you do not, now is the time to get started. Remember, you do not have to reinvent the wheel, but you do need to do some customization as may be appropriate for your agency. Simply copying the procedure of a large fire department is unlikely to work for a small fire department. On the other hand, obtaining copies of your mutual-aid partners’ mayday policies and procedures is helpful so that everyone is working from the same playbook.

Spread the word

Once you have a mayday policy and procedure in place, do you simply issue it to the members and call it a day? The research says you will have an awfully bad day if they wind up in a binder/dust collector.

New and updated policies and procedures should be issued following your department’s administrative communication policy. That can be a department order or memorandum distributed via agency email or the company commander or any combination thereof that ensuers the member receives both the information and the required training. The training and implementation schedule should be included in that communication.

Train them to make the call

Training on the mayday policy and procedure, along with associated policies and procedures, such as rapid intervention and command, is a must. And that training needs to be more than a kitchen table review of the policy and procedure. It can start there but must go well beyond.

All the acronyms in the world will mean nothing if the member does not recognize the need to transmit a mayday. After all, we know from reviewing NIOSH line-of-duty death (LODD) investigation reports that many firefighters call a mayday too late or simply don’t call.

A recent NIOSH LODD report highlights the need for hands-on mayday training. In this event, two California firefighters – a company officer and a firefighter – ran out of air while attempting to find their way out of the building. The captain did transmit a mayday, although it was 5 minutes after the IC ordered a defensive attack. This report, among other recommendations, states that “Firefighters should be 100% confident in their competency to declare a mayday for themselves.” Moreover, calling a mayday requires cognitive and psychomotor learning and performance. In other words, simple classroom training alone is ineffective.

The National Fire Academy developed a course that contains a universal set of parameters that are used to train firefighters when to call a mayday. There are four mayday parameters:

  1. A fall no matter what you went through (e.g., roof, floor);
  2. A collapse when something fell on you;
  3. Lost or trapped; and
  4. Stuck.

Firefighters must be trained to recognize the parameters and immediately call a mayday when in any of these scenarios.

The NFA course “Firefighter Safety: Calling the Mayday” is based on a model involving fighter pilot ejection training. In short, there are ejection parameters for each type of aircraft, and pilots must know the parameters for each aircraft they are qualified to fly. The parameters are simply if/then statements. For example, if the aircraft has lost flight control below a designated altitude, then eject. Applied to a firefighter mayday parameter, if something collapses on you, then call a mayday.

The other – and arguably more important – element in pilot ejection training is that it must be completed twice per year to remain qualified as a pilot. This training consists of classroom and flight simulator training, then the pilot goes through the ejection seat simulator to create the needed muscle memory to pull the handles when the time comes.

Hands-on application

So how do we replicate this in the fire service?

The fire service has built all manner of task simulators, from propane-fired computer-controlled burn rooms to in-house constructed mask confidence courses to roof ventilation props where the only expendable is another piece of plywood. Fortunately, your agency does not have to start from scratch. Three of the four parameters can be readily added to a mask confidence course, and a fall simulator can be constructed adjacent to the confidence course.

The goal of the four-parameter stations is to build the muscle memory required to transmit the mayday immediately after encountering the parameter. For example, the trainee encounters the fall prop, and the goal is for them to immediately transmit the mayday by finding and operating the mayday button on the radio (all while wearing full PPE and a blacked-out facepiece), and making the transmission using whatever pneumonic device your department uses. The evolution is completed when the member completes the required tasks.

The classroom and simulator work is a form of recogniation-primed decision-making. In other words, the more you see and experience a mayday event, the more readily you will make the proper decision. By conducting annual or semi-annual mayday training, firefighters will instinctively learn how to react to a mayday situation.

One last thing: It is never wrong to call a mayday because it can be canceled if the member self-rescues. The “wrong” mayday is the one that is too late or never called. By training on your mayday policy and procedure using both classroom and simulator, you will reduce the possibility of that “wrong” mayday.

Lexipol’s Content Development staff consists of current and former public safety professionals including lawyers and others who have served as chief, deputy chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, officer, deputy, jail manager, PREA auditor, prosecutor, agency counsel, civil litigator, writer, subject matter expert instructor within public safety agencies, as well as college and university adjunct professor. Learn more about Lexipol’s public safety solutions.