How mayday training saved 1 firefighter’s life

By Robert Rielage

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”

Three words that will spike your heartbeat whether you are an incident commander, company officer, RIT officer, firefighter or the firefighter in trouble. Such was the case on the early morning of Sept. 12, 2013 when Firefighter Taylor Wood fell through the roof and landed on a truss directly over the fire — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Earlier that year, Wood and other members of his department completed mayday training — it wasn’t their first time, but rather part of the continuing education and training that was prescribed to maintain their proficiency on the fireground. Interestingly enough, that earlier training session included a question-and-answer period with two firefighters from a nearby community who had been caught in a garage-fire flashover and cut off from their point of entry.

No one attending that drill could ever realize that Wood would be the next to call a mayday, and better yet, to escape with only minor burns, cuts and bruises because he was trained on what to do.

Morning of the 12th
At approximately 12:40 a.m. Sept. 12, several departments were dispatched to a residential structure fire in the village of Lincoln Heights, Ohio. Firefighter Wood was riding in the first-due ladder; he and Firefighter Conner Brunck constituted the exterior ventilation crew.

Wood and Brunck deployed a ground ladder on the B-side of the building and a roof ladder over the pitched gable. Wood sounded the roof with a tool as he approached the proposed ventilation site.

Simultaneously, Wyoming (Ohio) Asst. Chief Matt Flagler and the RIT officer, Reading (Ohio) Lt. Tom Grau, were conducting a 360-degree size up, while Woodlawn’s engine crew started entry with a 1¾-inch attack line.

Both Flagler and Grau noticed a distortion in the roofline near the rear of the structure and alerted the units on the scene by radio. Brunck and Wood attempted to retrace their steps to the ground ladder, again sounding their way with their tools.

Firefighter down
Firefighter Brunck had just started down the ladder when he saw a portion of the roof collapse and his partner disappear into the attic. Brunck issued a mayday to the incident commander. Per the mayday protocol, the county’s dispatch center who was monitoring the fireground frequency immediately transmitted a second alarm.

Inside the attic, Wood had caught himself on a rafter almost directly over the fire. He described the smoke as thick and black, with a high level of heat. Once he righted himself, he also immediately called a mayday using the acronym LUNAR to give his location, unit, name, air supply and resources needed for the rescue.

Woodlawn’s interior crew continued to extinguish the fire; Wyoming’s inside ladder crew began pulling ceiling over the area where Wood was believed to have fallen. The RIT crew began its entry.

Wood assessed his injuries as the smoke and heat conditions greatly improved. He once again checked his air supply as he attempted a self-rescue. The rafter was holding his weight as he attempted to move back up the hole in the roof.

Assisted by the RIT, Wood was extricated in less than 3 minutes.

Post incident
In my discussion afterward, Wood indicated that his mayday training immediately kicked in as he began to fall; his first thought was to make sure that his partner did not attempt to go back onto the roof after him. After checking his injuries, Wood knew that many maydays can be handled by self-extrication, so he formulated his own plan if conditions had gotten worse.

Chief Flagler commented on the discipline shown by the crews working at the fire scene that morning. None of the staged units attempted to self-deploy to Wood’s aid, and just as important, the interior crews realized that finding and quickly extinguishing the fire was the best course to make the conditions better for both the firefighter and the RIT.

In the post-fire analysis, several factors greatly improved the odds for this successful rescue:

  • Having a uniform, written mayday SOP adopted by every department in the county.
  • Requiring annual training on the mayday SOP for everyone, from the command officers to firefighters.
  • Assigning a designated, trained and equipped RIT dispatched on every structure fire and having the RIT officer actively engaged in determining additional means of entry and egress.
  • Thinking safety from the beginning of the incident. In this case, Wood was on the scene, declared a mayday and was safely rescued in the first 10 minutes of operation at the incident.
  • Maintaining discipline on the fire scene with both the crews in staging and more importantly with radio traffic.

In the event that you, your department or your county does not have a written mayday or RIT policy in place, here are two examples among many very good policies that may assist you.

Available resources
The first is the Hamilton County (Ohio) Fire Chiefs Association SOP that was used in the successful rescue this past September: www.hamcofire.org; the second is the Fishers (Ind.) Fire Department’s Operating Guide or FOG at www.fishers.org.

Fishers’ approach on structure fires includes designating the driver of the second-due medic unit to immediately report to the incident commander to act as his or her aide, but more importantly to handle all RIT radio traffic should a mayday be declared.

This allows the incident commander to concentrate on extinguishing the fire, which not only improves conditions for the firefighter in distress, but subsequently the improving conditions may buy additional time to successfully accomplish a difficult firefighter rescue.

The FOG prescribes company assignments to a structure fire by the order of their marked arrival on the scene to dispatch. Thus if the first engine is out of area and the second-due engine is first to arrive, as they mark on the scene they automatically assume the duties of the first engine and go to work accordingly.

The RIT as well is assigned by the order of unit arrival at the scene. This brings the RIT available for deployment on the front end of the incident when a large percentage of maydays occur.

It is noteworthy that, with the exception of Evandale, all of the departments on scene Sept. 12 were volunteer or combination departments.

While for some of us the winter months bring cold, snowy days that are difficult and even hazardous for outdoor training, a thorough, active review of your department or region’s mayday procedures may make the difference between either having an unthinkable line-of-duty death or a successful rescue in your department during the coming year.

Let’s make a fire service New Year’s resolution in 2014 that we will train the way we fight. Stay safe!

About the author

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers — USA Branch. Chief Rielage can be reached at Robert.Rielage@FireRescue1.com.

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