Step 1 in mayday prevention: Create policies and procedures

Key questions to help determine if your department has the documentation needed – and whether your members are prepared


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Most incident commanders would agree that “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” is the phrase they most dread hearing over the radio. Interestingly, it seems that firefighters also dread transmitting that phrase, often to the detriment of a successful rescue and the overall operation. In fact, firefighters’ aversion to calling a mayday early, plus a general lack of policy and procedural compliance concerning general fireground activities, have led to multiple line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). So, what can we do?

Policies and procedures set the tone

A review of departmental policies and procedures is a critical component of addressing any mayday event. Does your department have a specific mayday policy and/or procedure that addresses the required actions, not only for the firefighter calling the mayday but the IC as well? If the answer is “yes,” that’s great. You’re headed in the right direction. If the answer is “no,” that’s a problem, and now is the time to develop these crucial documents.

Those of you who answered in the affirmative aren’t off the hook yet, though. Let’s follow that up with a few more questions:

  • Does your department have rapid intervention policies and procedures?
  • Does your department have accountability policies and procedures?
  • Does your department have command and control policies and procedures?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, it’s time to get to work. All three of those policies and procedures play a part in both prevention and mitigation of mayday situations.

Training time

Let’s say your department has all those policies and procedures in place. The next part of the process involves training. Policies and procedures aren’t worth too much if they are just kept in a binder or on a shared drive somewhere in the fire station. Sure, just having them may check a box for an OSHA or state inspection. But these documents can mean the difference between life and death on the fireground.

Ask yourself:

  • Do department personnel understand the policies and procedures?
  • Do we train on these policies and procedures?
  • Does that training include real-time, hands-on scenarios?
  • Does everyone from the most junior member to the most seasoned officer participate?

Again, if the answer is “no,” then now is the time to take stock of your department’s training and step it up.

If you answered “yes,” are you convinced that you are training enough? Training on maydays, rapid intervention, accountability, and command and control should not be limited to a once-per-year check-off. It should be continuously practiced. This training isn’t something personnel just need to rehearse until they get it correct. It needs to be repeated until they can’t get it wrong.

Real-world tragedies

The pervasive mindset pertaining to maydays seems to be, “It won’t happen to me” or “It won’t happen here.” That attitude must change if we truly believe that our brothers and sisters who have been lost in previous tragedies have not died in vain.

Consider two fires that resulted in multiple line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). Nine Charleston (S.C.) firefighters were killed in the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire. Two Porterville (Calif.) firefighters were killed during a 2020 fire at the local library. Both departments commissioned independent reports to investigate what went wrong and provide lessons learned, and both reports were made available to the public and discussed at length in the trade publications. Read the Sofa Super Store fire report and the Porterville report.

As the internal report covers, the Charleston tragedy involved several operational issues related to water supply, strategy and tactics, communications, command and control, and rapid intervention. These issues were compounded by a lack of policies and procedures or not adhering to the details contained within those documents.

A fire sweeps through the Sofa Super Store furniture warehouse in Charleston, S.C. on Monday, June 18, 2007. Nine firefighters died in the blaze when a roof collapsed making it the nation's deadliest disaster for firefighters since the September 11th terrorist attacks.
A fire sweeps through the Sofa Super Store furniture warehouse in Charleston, S.C. on Monday, June 18, 2007. Nine firefighters died in the blaze when a roof collapsed making it the nation's deadliest disaster for firefighters since the September 11th terrorist attacks. (AP Photo/Alexander Fox)

Such findings led to many departments around the country reviewing their operational plans related to hoseline selection, hoseline placement, building occupancy, accountability, fireground command and rapid intervention teams (RIT). Some departments, as a result, made important changes to help avoid a similar tragedy. Many even developed training specific to the events at this type of occupancy and mandated attendance of all personnel. This fire and the resulting changes are now part of the curriculum for students enrolled in fire science degree programs at colleges and universities throughout the country.

The attention that has been devoted to studying the Sofa Super Store fire is well warranted. The sacrifices of our brothers and sisters we have lost in the line of duty cannot be forgotten. That point is preached at funerals, on political stumps and during training classes. While the heroes themselves are not forgotten, the fire service, unfortunately, tends to have a short memory when it comes to the factors that contributed to the fatalities.

Case in point: Thirteen years after the Sofa Super Store fire, two career firefighters lost their lives in a fire in Porterville, California. During the nearly decade and a half span between these two events, much had evolved in the fire service. Tactics were adjusted, training had been updated, new standards were developed. Yet when reviewing the report from California, the details of the incident are eerily familiar.

Both buildings were large commercial structures, yet in both cases, small-caliber preconnected handlines were the first lines pulled from the apparatus. Best practice indicates that larger handlines should have been deployed. Likewise, roving command, a lack of initial command, multiple officers giving orders without coordinating with command, and crews not relaying critical information to command are all noted in both reports – and ultimately led to catastrophic communication issues.

On a more individual level, both LODD investigations indicate the deceased personnel waited until they were nearly out of air to transmit a mayday. Since the Sofa Super Store fire, experts have recommended that personnel who are operating in an IDLH environment not wait until the low-pressure alarm on the SCBA sounds to call a mayday. Rather, firefighters are encouraged to call the mayday as soon as they get disoriented, lose contact with their crew, or become entrapped in any way. Incident reviews, including those from Project Mayday, have shown calling the mayday early greatly increases the chances of a successful outcome. It has been well established that didn’t happen in Charleston, and 13 years later, it didn’t happen in Porterville.

Bringing it together

It’s clear from the research that mayday incidents share similar circumstances. We know that nearly 43% of maydays occur in commercial structures, and roughly half of those maydays occur because personnel have lost or become separated from the hoseline. The reports from Charleston and Porterville indicate that personnel were separated from the hoseline. In both cases, lines that were too small and too short for the job were pulled.

Why is that? It comes down to muscle memory. For many departments, the majority of working fires are single-family dwellings. Personnel get accustomed to working in that environment. These fires can usually be handled with one or two 1¾-inch preconnected 150-foot hoselines. In many cases, the fire is controlled, if not extinguished, with tank water, and additional water supply can be secured relatively quickly. Rarely do these fires grow past a first-alarm assignment.

But commercial fires are different. While the goal of rescuing victims and extinguishing the fire is the same, that’s really where the similarity ends. Commercial fires require larger lines, patent water supply, and tactics that are appropriate for the structure and contents. In short, what works for the bread-and-butter house fire is going to be a real stretch for a successful commercial fire operation. Muscle memory is extremely important. But when the muscles only remember one aspect of the job, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Back to policies and procedures

Let’s go back to our discussion of policies and procedures. How do they fit into all of this? Well, they are the place to start. Nobody really knows their policies or procedures are out of date, not up to current best practice, or just really unclear until they are reviewed with a critical eye. Just having these documents isn’t enough. Personnel must be familiar with them and train on them, and that training needs to include everyone from the newest firefighter to the chief officers.

Once personnel are training on the policies and procedures, there needs to be a push for enforcement and adherence to these critical components. Company officers and chief officers must hold true to the various tenets of the command system. They must practice them on every call. They must build that muscle memory to ensure proper command and control and accountability procedures are followed. When command is not properly established and communication standards are not followed, the likelihood of a negative event, such as a mayday, occurring increases profoundly.

Conclusion

It is naïve to think that all mayday situations can be eliminated. Even with strict adherence to well-written policies and procedures, things will go wrong on the fireground. But departments that train their personnel to know and understand their policies and procedures can drastically reduce the occurrence of maydays and increase the chances of a successful outcome if a mayday does occur.

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