Sudden shifts: How to switch your mindset from interior operations to mayday rescue

Repeated training and breathing techniques to help lower your heart rate will help you make the mental shift

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The rapid intervention team (RIT) is often an afterthought on the fireground. Commonly assigned to a later-arriving company and regarded as a check-the-box assignment by the incident commander (IC), RIT is a job function that many firefighters don’t like due to the typical reactive approach that many departments take. As such, many firefighters don’t spend sufficient time training on this essential duty.

This approach should not be accepted as the norm for fire departments. After all, if we don’t learn from past experiences, history is due to repeat itself – and this means more maydays and greater potential for firefighter line-of-duty deaths. It’s time to take a more proactive – and realistic – approach to RIT operations.

Follow the data

What do you do if you are on the interior operations team with a specific assignment and a mayday goes out? It starts with command and communication.
What do you do if you are on the interior operations team with a specific assignment and a mayday goes out? It starts with command and communication. (Photo/Jason Caughey)

I’m a data-driven individual. Statistics from the Project Mayday 2020 annual report show that dedicated RITs only affected a mayday rescue 6.6% of the time over the last 6 years. Far more often, it was an interior company that performed the rescue – approximately 87% of the time:

  • Self-rescue: 35.5%
  • Victim’s crew: 26.1%
  • Another interior crew: 25.3%

Although I believe that the low percentage of RIT-completed rescues is due, in part, to a reactive mindset, plus low staffing or extended response times, the study shows that the closer the actual rescuers are, the higher chance of survival there is for the firefighter in need. Therefore, every firefighter, from the most junior firefighter to the most senior officer, needs to have a degree of training in survival and RIT operations.

So, what do you do if you are on the interior operations team with a specific assignment and a mayday goes out? It starts with command and communication.

Command and communication

We often forget about the IC during a mayday incident. How much training do they get on commanding a mayday? In my opinion, not enough.

Some common tactics and practices seem great in theory, but when applied in real life, do not work well. One example is having all operational units switch their portable radios to a different tactical channel after a mayday is received. This concept would be great if you could snap your fingers and have all involved units magically appear on the desired tactical channel. In reality, however, it’s not that easy. It is actually quite difficult to have your entire alarm switch channels in the middle of an operation. Typically, you would have the RIT, downed firefighter and a chief officer remain on the operating fireground tac, which then would become the mayday/rescue tac. All other members operating on that channel would switch to other channel. Some may not hear the message over the air, maybe due to tunnel vision or too much noise around them. Others may accidentally switch to a radio channel not assigned by command. In most cases, this tactic creates more accountability issues for Command. Arguably, communication is one of the biggest issues on the fireground.

Also, why would you want to have the units that statistically perform the rescue most of the time (interior crews) go to a different channel? Why not focus our efforts on using those companies (in conjunction with the RIT team) to get information or possibly effect the rescue?

Another question to consider: Who will be commanding the operation on the “new” tac channel? Do you have another chief or commanding officer on scene? You will need to increase your command structure with two separate operating channels.

There is a time and place for this tactic but not necessarily right away. In my humble opinion, it would be after victim contact was made by either an interior crew or a RIT team and if determined that the extraction will be complex or lengthy.

With that being said, it is extremely important for all personnel to maintain radio discipline by holding/minimizing non-essential communications. By “non-essential,” I specifically mean transmissions that are not directly related to the RIT operation or life safety concerns.

After receiving the mayday, striking an additional alarm, and obtaining as much info from the downed firefighter as possible, my radio traffic would follow this approach:

  • “Command to all units, maintain operational assignment, and hold non-essential communications on this TAC.”

I would then attempt to utilize my interior crews to gather more information and see if they are in a position to effect the rescue.

  • “Command to E1, do you have a visual on E3 FF Smith? Are you able to get to him?”

My decision to have units switch channels would be based on their feedback and the stage of the fire. Remember, we would still have the initial emergency to manage, not just a mayday. Ensuring the continuation and effectiveness of those efforts will be necessary to support the firefighter rescue.

  • “E1 to Command. We have 2 victims from Engine 3 trapped in a collapse on Side Charlie, Quadrant Bravo. It’s going to be an extended extraction. Have Tower 1 set up a cache of equipment on Side Charlie with X,Y,Z... We will begin working and team up with RIT once they get to us.”

In this case, I would choose to scale up the operation into two separate channels.

Mental shift

Shifting your mindset from interior ops to mayday rescue can be difficult and will add pressure to the crews, not only because of the sudden change in tactics but also due to the fact that a mayday is personal.

Any time we’re introduced to a sudden or unexpected change, like a mayday, our heart rate increases approximately 10 times faster than normal. This is a fear response to the unknown – the body’s natural and initial way of dealing with stress.

In order to maximize our potential, we need to understand how stress affects our body. Stress increases our heart rate. A sustained elevated heart rate will cause fatigue, tunnel vision, decreased motor skills, auditory exclusion, and increase respiratory rate and oxygen demand. In short, the mind controls emotions, emotions will alter the biology (heart rate), and biology affects performance. Therefore, if we can control our mindset, we can increase our performance.

A good way to reduce the fear of the unknown is exposing yourself to as many different scenarios in a training environment. The brain is a record of the past, and emotions are the result of past experiences. Repeated training, coupled with breathing techniques to help lower your heart rate, will help you manage your fear and maximize your performance in the moment.

When thrust into a mayday situation, time is of the essence. Several critical decisions will need to be made on the spot. For one, do you leave your tactical assignment to attempt a rescue? That question is difficult to answer without painting a good picture of the emergency were dealing with. A good incident commander will take into consideration the input of interior crews, who can share whether another company would be better to effect the rescue while they stay focused on fire suppression. The IC will need to weigh their options, considering the risk vs benefit for all involved.

Train for anything

It is imperative to use objective national data to steer our training and ultimately establish our standard operating procedures (SOPs) for RIT operations. We know the data shows that interior crews rescue a downed firefighter far more often than a dedicated RIT. So how are you training your teams to account for this?

Part of this training must involve a discussion of tools and equipment. What tools are your firefighters carrying in their pockets? I believe in being light, mobile and fast, but feel that every firefighter should carry the following tools: two pairs of cutters (upper/lower body, one on either side), two flashlights, a small thermal imaging camera, some sort of adjustable strap or webbing, and a conventional firefighting tool (Halligan is my preference).

Incorporate into mayday training scenarios a simulation in which a team member goes down in the middle of the evolution. This will help crews practice switching gears. As we know from so many of our training evolutions, it’s vital to mimic the real-life stressors we’ll face so that we’re exposed to them prior to an actual emergency.

It is important that crews train on critical decision-making, learning how to be efficient on the fireground. I always say “imperfection, beats inaction”; it is better to make a bad decision than not make a decision at all, as at least were making forward progress. And if that decision doesn’t work, we can reevaluate and redirect. Being indecisive creates chaos and wastes time – I call that the “limbo state.” Try various evolutions where crews are forced to think on their feet, change operational modes and make decisions unrelated to the original assignment. This will help them learn to adapt in the moment.

In sum

The keys factors to being able to switch gears from interior ops to mayday rescue are discipline, flexibility and training. The fire scene is very dynamic and can change in an instant. Be prepared to rescue yourself, your crew or another company any time!

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