Your questions answered: Mayday survival – personal experiences, practical tactics

How to manage inside-out rescues, who runs command, when to engage the suppression team and more questions addressed


Watch the on-demand webinar “Mayday survival – personal experiences, practical tactics” to learn more from Battalion Chief Conn about his personal mayday experience and to get tactical tips for mayday training and operations. Register here to view the digital event.

By Battalion Chief Steve Conn, Lt. Kris Prosser and Firefighter/Medic Tyler Abbatiello

Mayday incidents demand significant focus, not only for the mayday firefighter but also the incident commander, RIT team and interior crews suddenly shifting gears to locate and remove the down firefighter. As such, training on these high-risk/low-frequency events is essential.

The recent FireRescue1 webinar “Mayday survival – personal experiences, practical tactics” offered a detailed look at two personal mayday experiences, one on the fireground and on in training, plus key tools and guidance for how to handle mayday events.

The key to avoiding tragic outcomes is mayday training, particularly for newer members with less muscle memory aligned with real-world fireground emergencies.
The key to avoiding tragic outcomes is mayday training, particularly for newer members with less muscle memory aligned with real-world fireground emergencies. (Photo/Carol Robinson via MCT)

Members of the FireRescue1 community posed several questions:

Do you require command officers to handle mayday situations in a simulation lab or practical training?

Our organization recognized the need for strong command back in the 80s and has incorporated command training every step of the way. Most recently, we have adopted the Blue Card Command system.

We practice in simulation labs and on the training ground. The pandemic even allowed us to expand some of our trainings between multiple stations by using Zoom/Teams-type products to facilitate on-scene reports, 360 size-ups and radio traffic among the stations with one person controlling slides of fire scenes and sharing them across the platform.

Related to validated and formalized command programs, we need to address this like we would any other training certification. The system must provide for competency-based testing in labs and on the training ground. We have learned that muscle memory plays a big part in successful outcomes of dangerous situations, so the more repetitions in training you can have (measured against stated objectives and goals), the more likely we are to have a successful outcome.

What do you believe to be the reason(s) (even today) why firefighters do not complete a 360 size-up?

There are legitimate times when a first-arriving officer may not complete a 360 (imminent rescue/collapse), but it is imperative that someone gets a 360 eventually. Command MUST know what is going on around the Charlie side.

Another reason some don’t complete a 360 is the combination of complacency and inexperience. It may sound harsh, but there are very few working fire situations that don’t need the complete picture painted for command – and even in those cases, the problem is probably so big it’s self-evident.

Also, frantic homeowners distracting the Initial IC with information or requests may cause tunnel vision in an undisciplined officer, resulting in a “go in and get it” approach, with a missed 360 before entry.

Can you expand on the inside-out RIT with emphasis on how the inside RIT positions/functions can operate without becoming part of the IDLH environment problem in terms of air management and potential collapse?

First, make sure they understand three deep with on-deck and the inside-out model. If they don’t, explain the difference between traditional RAT (outside-in) vs. on deck and inside-out. There are no guarantees in either system. That being said, various studies have shown the inside-out approach has a higher percentage of success. 

It sounds like this question refers to a hostile fire event or sudden collapse with Team 1 being directly involved. If you are Team 2, working adjacent, that event is either directly involving you as well or it is not. If Team 2 is also involved in that event, they are no longer inside-out rescuers; they are additional victims. If Team 2 does have enough space between them and the affected area, at the very least they can call the mayday for Team 1 if they are incapable, or even act as a recon team giving a CAN report to command so the IC can formulate an appropriate IAP. Worst case scenario: You have multiple teams operating in IDLH, and a large-scale event happens that involves all of them. If this happens, the closest inside crew becomes a possible victim, and an alternate IAP needs to be instituted to move toward an outside-in model utilizing the on-deck crew or abandonment.

Further, air management must be first and foremost on everyone’s mind throughout an incident. Depending on air supply, Team 2 may have more time to work. That may be removing debris, making the affected area more tenable, making initial contact, confirming the mayday, or getting the victims ready for packaging and extrication by the on-deck crew that would be in route with the RAT bag. This rolls into the air management SOG and whether the crew can continue working in the IDLH atmosphere and for how long. Can we make it to them? Can we only quickly provide critical information? Do we need to exit anyway due to low air and request replacement? 

With taking care of the mayday from the inside-out, you still want to keep the attack crew putting out the fire, correct?

This is the balancing act, right? Put the fire out, and it will most likely reduce the hazards facing your jeopardized firefighter. Spend too much time on putting the fire out, and your firefighter may run out of resources like air.

For every decision you make as a command officer to rescue your mayday, you also must make decisions on firefighting tactics and strategies along with resource allocation. This is one of the reasons why it is best to split your command during a mayday – one to run the mayday and one to run the fire suppression activities.

Chief Conn, during your mayday experience described on the webinar, why was the RIT member on your mayday situation removed so much quicker than yourself, and were you able to apply that preparedness to your members to show that being ready allowed for much quicker removal and clearer thinking?

The first thing is that for my own rescue, the RIT team was still arriving on scene when I went in and therefore still had to assemble themselves and their tools. They had just assembled and were beginning the RIT operations for me, so they were already in place and not needed since I had self-rescued. Therefore, as soon as the other member fell in, they were right there with a ladder and other means to assist him out. It’s just another example of how crews closer to the firefighter in trouble can affect a much quicker rescue.

Should the IC run the mayday? Or should the IC sector out of the mayday and stay in command of the fire?

It is best to split the command functions between mayday and suppression, assuming you have the staffing early enough to do this. As we know, most maydays happen within a few minutes of the first arriving on scene. If you’re still assembling a firefighting force large enough to attack the fire, then you may not have all your command/support officers on scene yet.

In our situation, it may take 10 minutes before I have additional command officers on scene. In large municipalities, they can get multiple chiefs and others on scene along with first arriving. Your situation will dictate the operations.

Can you offer ideas for getting mutual aid into the habit of RIT?

There are so many factors to consider here. Mutual aid is a touchy subject. The last thing we can do is mandate another organization to follow our rules. There are budgetary, staffing, personnel, politics and many other issues at play. What we can do, though, is start conversations about complementary training and policies, trying to align the philosophies among mutual-aid departments.

Another idea is to create a joint consortium or partnership between mutual-aid departments to share philosophies, training and resources, and then adopt a comprehensive policy to work together toward the common goal of safety.

Since 2016, per statistics, we continue to see RIT making a minority of extrications. While we should never abandon the notion of RIT and keeping up RIT skills, what does this mean, if anything, for the future of the actual RIT team?

In terms of the efficacy of the inside-out vs. inside-in RIT, I think the statistics bear out that the quicker we get to our downed firefighter, the better chances for removal and good outcomes.

I believe the actual RIT companies coming forward MUST bring all the equipment and tools as if they were preparing to be RIT-assist companies. Blue Card tells units moving forward to bring RIT packs and equipment. Should we take it one step further and have them start proactively staging additional equipment that might be needed for removal of a downed firefighter?

All companies on the fireground need to remain trained and prepared to function as RIT/RAT at any given moment. With the on-deck model and inside-out rescue plan, any company at any time can be deployed as an initial rescue team making initial contact (RIT) or a support team coming from the on-deck position. Although we do not have a dedicated RIT position by name, any company inside that makes initial contact becomes RIT. We need to remain flexible in our approach in order to increase our odds of being successful.

Thoughts on team deployment? Depending on the size of the team, if we are using an outside RIT to enter, how many go in and do we keep any outside?

Statistically speaking, it takes approximately 12-15 firefighters or four to five RIT teams to affect a successful rescue. This means that there needs to be at least four to five companies in Level 1 to call up to on-deck and support the rescue. And this does not include fire suppression operations. There will be a need to back-fill all working positions and have enough for air management rotations. This will all depend on the scale of your incident when the mayday occurs. Call early for resources and try to anticipate needs.

Why does the fire service still struggle with placing an initial RIC in place during a first-alarm assignment when firefighters are first entering an IDLH, especially when the data indicates that most maydays occur within the first few minutes after arrival? Often, RIC is set up after second-alarm units arrive as an afterthought.

When possible, RIT should be strongly encouraged and set up by the third- or fourth-arriving company. This requires discipline from the IC to make sure this task is assigned as a priority.

First-due officer sets up accountability and starts the timer for the initial-attack crew (air management is priority). Get creative with your personnel and have your first-arriving medic unit that is not filling immediate EMS needs to take over accountability until a staff officer arrives or assigned.

Do you use an attack team and a search team at the same time?

The short answer is yes. For example, once a charged line has entered the building, the search crew can move ahead of the line and search from the seat of the fire out.

On the way to the seat of the fire, the search teams' extra function is to clear a path (like a bulldozer) for the attack line. This will speed getting the line in place. Ultimately, getting water on fire faster will mitigate most issues.

Searching without an attack line is much more efficient. This is why a search team should have a water can and should also know there is a charged line not far behind.

Considering that most maydays are addressed by the mayday firefighter’s own crew or another crew operating in the structure, can you offer any suggestions for training for this scenario – how to prep not-RIT-assigned units to perform RIT ops? What’s the line between assistance and abandoning (freelancing) your initial assignment?

NEVER abandon fire suppression!

RIT training can be company-level small-scale training. Start by deploying a hoseline and spontaneously advise your crew to perform an inside-out RIT rescue. You can either practice a split-crew scenario or simulate being backfilled by the on-deck.

For large-scale training with multiple crews, deploy an initial attack line, backup line, and simulate a search crew going down, calling a mayday. Practice backfilling units with on-deck and functioning inside-out RIT with clear identification of which crew is initiating RIT and/or splitting crew. Communication is key! 

Communicating is essential. Split crew, CAN reports, and who is initiating the rescue all must be communicated clearly to the IC. This also ensures freelancing is not occurring.

We're really good at the things we do all the time because when we're doing them, we are actually practicing on them. Shouldn’t we be training MORE on RIT drills since we don't do it a lot on incidents?

Yes, we must train on high-risk/low-frequency events like maydays. Everything we do while RIT training helps us everywhere else on the fireground – low or no visibility, dexterity under stress, communication under stress, air management, searching, reorienting yourself using hoselines or rope.

Have you had problems with firefighter trying to talk with mic at mask instead of using an air pack mic speaker?

We’ve recently been encountering issues with the mask seals and small air leaks interfering with the Bluetooth mic in our masks. Of course, ensuring that the masks are fitted properly is essential. We have, though, identified some other issues, such as weight loss/weight gain that affects seals. We just need to keep this in mind when a member of our crew has a significant weight change and advise them to be fit-tested.

We also had numerous issues using the amplified voice speakers on our older packs. The issue had something to do with the sound frequencies being emitted from the speaker and the sensitivity of the radio microphone. At one time, we were advised to only use the radio at the speaking diaphragm of the mask and not use the amplified speaker. We did some testing with our radios and the manufacturer along with the air packs manufacturer to narrow down the issues.

The point here is that knowing your equipment (and its limitations) is essential. You need to identify these issues on the training ground under “real” conditions (or as real as possible).

What’s your go to tools for a RIT assignment – residential vs. commercial?

Tactical priorities and unique situations will drive the tools needed. Regardless of residential or commercial, we need: 

  • Air bottles (RIT pack) 
  • Packaging or drag device 
  • Fast help (search rope that others can follow to you and the down firefighter) 

Residential buildings present odd challenges at times. Homeowners adding rooms and creating void spaces, bars on windows, homemade drop bars on sliding doors, even hoarder conditions, can influence your tool and packaging choices.

Commercial construction can require even more specialized tools and training. Is it an open floor or one that’s congested with equipment? Is it a simple straightforward layout or a labyrinth of small offices? Is there a partial collapse? 

Knowing your district, buildings and hazards is paramount, but each situation is different. It may come down to your personal tools in your pocket.

About the Authors

Steven G. Conn, MSOL, BSN, RN, EMT-P, is a battalion chief and public information officer for the Colerain Township (Ohio) Department of Fire and EMS where he has served for over 30 years. He has a master’s degree in organizational leadership with a particular interest in organizational culture and how organizations are affected by major disturbances. He is also registered nurse with 30 years of experience in interventional cardiology.

Lt. Kris Prosser is a 21-year veteran of the fire service. He holds multiple certifications as instructor and technical rescue technician. Lt. Prosser helped to create Colerain Township’s firefighter safety and survival curriculum and actively teaches the RIT program to ensure 100% of Colerain firefighters receive the training in their orientation. He also has a special interest in tactical medical response and is an active member of the Hamilton County Police Association’s SWAT team. Prosser is a 2022 recipient of the IAFC’s Ben Franklin Award for Valor.

Firefighter/Medic Tyler Abbatiello is a 12-year member of the Colerain Township (Ohio) Department of Fire and EMS and is currently stationed at Station 26, which houses the Heavy Rescue and Water Rescue assets. Abbatiello is a fire instructor and is responsible for co-chairing the Department’s cadet program. Abbatiello is a 2022 recipient of IAFC’s Ben Franklin Award for Valor.

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