Here we are again, evaluating our mayday procedures after a tragedy

The death of Captain Laird reminds us of the importance of mayday training, plus learning the signs of an imminent mayday


Every time we go out the door, we face another opportunity for disaster. Whether it’s the complacency surrounding a nuisance fire alarm address, the 3,000 (or 40,000)-pound vehicle bearing down on top of us, or the hole in the floor awaiting us, here we are again.

This week, Captain Joshua Laird lost his life after a mayday incident at a structure fire in Frederick County, Maryland.

"The void that he leaves behind will never be filled," said Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services Chief Tom Coe.

Training on mayday procedures is a critical way to help prevent firefighter LODDs.
Training on mayday procedures is a critical way to help prevent firefighter LODDs. (Photo/PSOB)

What to say …

At FDIC last week, I attended a class titled, “3 Degrees of Mayday,” presented by Chiefs John Salka and Rick Lasky. The chiefs explained that every mayday is unique. Some are easy and involve a quick self-extrication, while others are much more complex and involve multiple companies to complete a rescue – and there’s everything in between. There were lots of great takeaways from the class, many of which we’ve touched on time and time again, year after year – yet here we are again.

Of particular interest to me was Chief Salka’s disdain for the LUNAR mnemonic – Location, Unit, Name, Assignment/Air supply, Resources needed. Salka suggested that all we need to worry about is “Who, What, Where.” In other words, the downed firefighter shouldn’t have to worry about trying to remember LUNAR, as it’s easier, in such a stressful situation, to relay Who, What, Where. All great discussion and great learning opportunities, yet here we are again, just days later, discussing mayday communications at a real incident that ended in tragedy.

Personally, I think a combination of the two operational components (Who, What, Where and LUNAR), plus following extreme radio discipline, is in our better interest, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Lest we have 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress, here we are again.

The mayday sequence of events

As we evaluate our mayday processes and procedures, it is vital that we TRAIN, TRAIN and TRAIN again so that the mayday process works flawlessly, every time. That process should involve the following sequence of events:

  1. The missing crewmember (MAYDAY) uses the universal, “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY” over the radio, let’s off the transmit button and awaits Command’s return.
  2. Command’s return should be, “Command to the MAYDAY, Who, What, Where.”
  3. The MAYDAY responds: “Firefighter Smith, I fell through the floor, into the basement, I’m in the alpha quadrant.”
  4. Command deploys the rapid-intervention crew/team and begins confirming LUNAR with the MAYDAY. While Command is confirming LUNAR, the RIC/RIT is listening to all the radio traffic and evaluating the signs/symptoms in the MAYDAY’s voice and direction.
  5. ALL other radio traffic ceases, except for life-safety-critical transmissions. (Note: I used to be a fan of moving units, but I have since found that too much useful information gets lost in that transition, and a firefighting crew might not hear critical safety information or might be right next door to the MAYDAY, but wouldn’t know either, if they’ve switched to an alternate talk-group. It all comes back to extreme radio discipline.)
  6. Once Command finishes LUNAR, the RIC/RIT takes over communications with the MAYDAY.
  7. If necessary, switch water supply to an alternate talk-group; frankly, that should probably have been done anyways!
  8. The RIC/RIT confirms benchmarks to Command and the MAYDAY:
    • Entry made
    • “Who” has been accessed
    • “What” has been mitigated (or we need assistance)
    • “Where” is the location of exit

Maybe, just maybe, a fresh look at the entire mayday process will keep us from going through this again.

Project Mayday

All firefighters should be familiar with Don Abbott’s Project Mayday, a comprehensive study of more than 11,000 mayday calls. A little background on Abbott: He retired from the Warren Township Fire Department (now Indianapolis Fire Department), and later developed the Command Training Center for Chief Alan Brunacini in Phoenix.

While we know that most maydays occur in the first 5 to 10 minutes of an incident, Abbott reports that around 23% of the maydays occur prior to a chief’s arrival. “This highlights the criticality for firefighters to follow the rules of engagement and crew officers to ensure that happens,” Abbott said. “The trends seem to be suggesting a resurgence of firefighters doing their own thing.”

As we reflected on the stressors of the job, as an industry, it’s understandable that we move around a lot, that there’s a lot of overtime, that there’s a lot of work that can lead to irregular staff moves and crew makeup.

“I think sometimes we take too much for granted,” Abbott said. “Company officers have to make sure they engage with their crew daily. The officer may not know you real well, but they have to KNOW you! Company officers need to lay out the rules, and firefighters need to be asking what the expectations are.”

We also reviewed the 16 common phrases or signs that occur during mayday calls. Abbott emphasizes that an incident commander should be concerned with any ONE of these signs or phrases; however, in over 86% of the cases where three or more of these factors existed, there was a mayday. In other words: Three or more and “you’ve got trouble”:

  1. “There’s zero visibility.”
  2. “There’s fire above our heads.”
  3. “There’s fire below us.”
  4. “Give us more line.”
  5. “We have not found the fire.”
  6. “We’re out of air.”
  7. “It’s a hoarder house.”
  8. Flashover occurred.
  9. Ceiling or roof collapsed.
  10. Lost multiple windows.
  11. “It’s really hot in here, we’re backing out.”
  12. “Our exit is blocked.”
  13. “We’re sending Firefighter out with a problem.”
  14. Holes in the floor or floor collapses.
  15. A lot of sprinklers activated.
  16. Command lost communication with crews.

Command officers must take this seriously – command competencies are just as important as hoseline or airway management. In our “Command Post Management for New Officers” video series, we talked about the importance of a 10x10 box, whether that’s the vehicle, the back of a vehicle, or somewhere else. Abbott reiterated the importance of a fixed command post with a mobile radio for the successful mitigation of a mayday.

I encourage you to visit Project Mayday, and use the resources available to train and prepare your firefighters for mayday incidents. We can all learn from each other and prepare ourselves and our crews better.

‘Tell my family I love them’

Dispatch audio from this week’s Frederick County mayday include a gut-wrenching moment when Laird can be heard saying, “Tell my family I love them.” We have heard these words in many mayday situations. The Charleston Sofa Super Store Fire comes to mind immediately. We learned so much from Charleston, from the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse fire, from New York, Connecticut, etc., etc., etc. – yet here we are again.

On Aug. 11, 2021, Captain Laird fell through a hole in the floor into a basement. He was able to articulate the Who, What and Where. He was pulled out by a RIC/RIT, handed over to awaiting EMS crews, and was airlifted to a hospital. But it still wasn’t enough.

Laird’s radio transmissions will haunt many for years to come. Like other recordings from critical incidents, these transmissions should be used to educate every recruit class that comes through our system. Maybe those gut-wrenching words will help us absorb the lessons and train harder. Maybe we need to take the shock-value-tact that Chief Brunacini would use with recruit classes when Abbott worked for him – bringing a fire department coffin into the class, and forcing every recruit to get in, closing the lid to make sure they understood what “final” meant.

While “the process” seemingly worked on Aug. 11, 2021, here we are again, planning another funeral.

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