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Rules of Engagement for Firefighter Survival: Declare a Mayday as Soon as You Think You're in Danger

Declare a Mayday as Soon as You Think You Are in Danger.

Objective: To ensure firefighters are comfortable with and there’s no delay in declaring a mayday when firefighters are faced with life-threatening situations and to ensure the mayday is declared as soon as they think they’re in trouble.

The lack of recognition of the need for an early mayday declaration—and the need for this rule—is illustrated by a survey conducted by Dr. Burt Clark of the National Fire Academy. When asked if the firefighter would declare a mayday if faced with “zero visibility, no contact with hoseline or lifeline, do not know direction to an exit,” only 82% would. Only 58% would declare a mayday if they couldn’t find an exit in 60 seconds.

Both of these situations mandate an immediate mayday declaration!

There is a very narrow window of survivability when a firefighter gets into a life-threatening situation. Any delay in declaring a mayday eats into the survival time window. The firefighter must never hesitate to declare a mayday!

Firefighters should also provide the incident commander their name, company, location, air supply and situation, along with any other critical information that will aid rescuers in quickly locating them.

When declaring a mayday, the firefighter should also activate the radio’s emergency alert button (where provided) and then manually activate the PASS device. New technology allows the radio to be programmed to go to a designated emergency channel, clear of the tactical radio traffic, to declare the mayday. This allows the firefighter to talk directly to the incident commander free of interference.

The term mayday has been endorsed by the two largest fire service organizations in the country as the term to be used for a firefighter experiencing a life-threatening emergency. The IAFC board of directors endorsed the term mayday in 2007 as a standard term to be used when a firefighter is in trouble and the term emergency traffic should be used to alert firefighters to other fireground emergencies. The IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival Section strongly encourages all fire departments to adopt the term mayday.

The IAFF has also been recommending mayday to identify a firefighter in trouble for more than a decade. The term mayday is used throughout its Fire Ground Survival Program, which is highly recommended).

Further, a 2008 national survey conducted by Firehouse magazine, with 10,327 responses, has determined overwhelmingly that firefighters currently use, or prefer to use, the term mayday. The term emergency traffic only garnered a 5% vote. It’s important that fire departments adopt mayday and develop training programs emphasizing early declaration.

Firefighters must also understand that rapid intervention may not be rapid and any delay in declaring a mayday also puts rescuers at greater risk. Research conducted by the Phoenix and Seattle fire departments determined it would take between 19 and 21 minutes to search, locate and remove a firefighter from a building. This rescue time can easily exceed the air supply remaining in the victim’s and rescuers’ SCBAs.

The research was conducted in 5,000-square-foot buildings. While rescue time will vary depending on square footage and the complexity of a building, the lesson is that if a firefighter gets in trouble, RIT isn’t going to be rapid!

Research also determined that on average, 11–12 firefighters are needed to rescue a downed firefighter. It should also be noted that 20% of rescuers got disoriented or lost during these exercises and would have faced a life-threatening situation themselves in an actual fire.

This research was conducted under sterile, non-fire conditions. One can expect actual rescue times to be even longer under actual fire conditions, which would involve high heat, smoke, wet and slippery conditions, with debris littering the floor.

NO GO: If you’re lost, separated or in trouble, don’t try to find your way out by yourself. Never, ever hesitate to declare a mayday!

Chief Gary Morris is a director at large on the Safety, Health and Survival Section board of directors and was the team lead for the Rules of Engagement project. He was formerly chief of the Rural Metro Fire Department in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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