Managing the mayday: A crisis of (over) confidence

ICs enjoy the confidence of firefighters during a mayday, but what is the basis for that faith?


Humility is the hallmark of a great incident commander. The ability to recognize not only the range of one’s strengths, but also the depths of one’s weaknesses keeps ICs grounded in a sense of reality that our communities need and our firefighters deserve.

Humility should drive us toward continuous self-improvement, it should fuel our desire to train and hone our abilities to manage incidents of all sizes and complexity, and yet when FireRescue1 surveyed nearly 2,500 firefighters, the results showed resounding confidence in ICs to manage the mayday.

Such confidence begs some questions:

When FireRescue1 surveyed nearly 2,500 firefighters, the results showed resounding confidence in ICs to manage the mayday.
When FireRescue1 surveyed nearly 2,500 firefighters, the results showed resounding confidence in ICs to manage the mayday. (Photo/Jason Coleman-Cobb)
  • Why are ICs so trusted in this most high-risk/low-frequency set of circumstances, particularly considering the many factors working against them, as we’ll show in the responses to several other questions from the survey?
  • Are respondents fully considering the preparation and execution of managing a mayday through what those past incidents have taught us, or are we allowing the familiarity of our routine to fog the lens from which we perceive our own true capabilities?

On a good day, an IC should feel the righteous weight of their responsibility. Sitting ever-present on your shoulders, in a corner of your mind, perhaps you feel it in your chest. When everything is going well, adequate resources are in place, competent firefighters carry out tasks without challenge. These are the days that build an IC’s collateral within their department.

But what about when things don’t go well? What about when one of our own needs rescuing? Do all those days of things going to plan, working out alright, being OK prepare our ICs to manage the mayday?

Breaking down the data

Respondents to the “What Firefighters Want” survey replied with confidence to the question, “If a fireground mayday occurred, I would feel confident in the incident commander’s ability to manage the rescue effort.”

I’m somewhat of an all-in/all-out kind of guy when it comes to data that speaks to the idea of firefighters going home to their families at the end of each shift. So, let’s begin by combining the agrees (strongly and generally) and the disagrees, leaving out neutral “neither agree nor disagree.” (Note: How can you not have an opinion on such an important question?)

This is where the data doesn’t match what we know about an IC’s readiness and capability to manage a mayday. Specifically, we have 67% reporting confidence in the IC’s ability to manage the mayday rescue effort, plus 84% agreeing that ICs ensure that a 360-degree size-up is complete. But Don Abbott’s Project Mayday indicates from actual maydays (12,277 to be exact) that 49% of the time, no 360 was done and that an additional 21% of 360s were incomplete.

Further, only 24% reported after-action reviews (AARs) occurring “often.” How are you gaining knowledge from near-misses and lessons learned from complex incidents if less than one-quarter of respondents experience regular AARs?

What’s more, 64% of respondents reported receiving less than 72 hours of incident command training beyond certifications.

The amount of time spent in certifications for ICs varies greatly, so let us just focus for a moment on the beyond part of this statement and leave the commentary to two overarching questions:

  1. WHY are more than half of the ICs receiving less than 72 hours of training post certification?
  2. WHAT are you going to do to address that gap for yourself and for your organization?

More than three-quarters of you (79%) reported that you have served as ICs. You can’t tell me that once you got your initial certifications, you’re done!

Taking this concern to another level, a whopping 95% of respondents received less than 72 hours of incident command training in 2021. We were in a pandemic. What else did you have to do?

Lastly, consider the strength in respondents’ confidence in ICs despite the fact that 30% of ICs reported not using command tool like a checklist or chart on the fireground. Am I missing something here?

Maybe we aren’t as ready as we think we are, or as others think we are.

Information is power

Knowing when, how and why maydays occur helps us prepare for commanding these incidents. As such, when thinking about the survey response to our mayday-management question, let’s consider some additional insights from Don Abbott’s Project Mayday.

From 2015-2021, Project Mayday collected mayday reports from 12,851 fire departments, showing some interesting results:

  • 30% of maydays occur from 1-3 a.m.;
  • 57% of maydays involve the first unit;
  • 54% of maydays involve engine crews (Note: Ladders is 45% – 10% of the fire service is 45% of maydays);
  • 86% of maydays had a battalion chief on scene;
  • 33% of maydays saw 16-22 firefighters on scene at the time of the event; and
  • 52% of maydays occur within 20-35 minutes after arriving on the scene.

Further, it’s important to note that only 28% of individuals who have experienced a mayday reported being engaged in pre-mayday training run by a battalion chief.

Plus, 82% had confidence in their IC, but only 16% had confidence in the rapid-intervention team. This statement, given everything else we’ve reviewed to this point, realigns us with my original question: Is there an (over) confidence among respondents related to mayday management? Draw your own conclusion with this caveat: We need to be realistic about how mayday incidents actually unfold – and recognize that not all maydays are created equal.

Are you ready?

One possible reason for the display of confidence in ICs’ ability to manage a mayday, at least in the FireRescue1 survey: 79% of respondents have served as an IC. I sense that maybe, just maybe, we are getting a few self-evaluations here that might not reflect the impressions and perceptions of those working for the IC. Kudos to those of you who are stone-cold ready for the mayday, but remember, we are all fallible.

So, are our ICs ready to manage the mayday? Maybe. Can we get to a place of greater certainty? Yes. Train regularly in incident command, use an incident command tool, always perform a 360, and be humble, not complacent. Study maydays and near misses like your life – or the life of one of your firefighters – depends on it.

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