By Dr. Randall Hanifen
The recent line-of-duty death of Captain Joshua Laird in Frederick County, Maryland, was a grim reminder to firefighters that firefighting is inherently dangerous. Unfortunately, we still have many line-of-duty deaths in single family home blazes or what others would call “bread and butter fires.”
In reviewing the radio traffic from this incident, it is easy to tell that Laird’s fire department was well prepared for this type of event. They remained calm under pressure, and Captain Laird also maintained his calm while telling the incident commander (IC) where he was at and what he needed during the Mayday call.
I have heard many similar Mayday calls over my career where first responder organizations did not know they lost a firefighter, the scene was chaotic, or the incident was completely mismanaged. None of these appeared to be the case in Laird’s situation.
Firefighter Preparedness for Mayday Calls
While you’re managing a Mayday call, the proper response is often dictated by policy makers who are well above the firefighter rank. However, it is the firefighters’ preparedness prior to and their ability to perform during a Mayday that makes the difference between a good or bad outcome.
On the surface, all policies look great in an office. However, has your first responder organization prepared thorough training to implement the policy? Have you made suggestions for policy updates based on realistic training scenarios?
The firefighter’s ability to use equipment – such as a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), radio, and lights – in a blind environment and upside down is key. This equipment contributes to the firefighter’s ability to successfully relay any issue and survive until the rapid intervention crew (RIC) or other people can perform a rescue.
If you haven’t participated in a training exercise where you’re locked in a room with zero visibility and don and doff your air pack under such circumstances, you will likely not learn how to determine when you have fallen through a floor. Imagine that you’re in a zero-visibility basement after such a fall, trying to gather your senses and your personal protective equipment (PPE), and consider these questions:
- Can you get to the microphone of your radio and get out the Mayday transmission to a crew?
- Do you always wear your radio in the same way?
- Have you been trained to fall with one hand on your microphone and one on your SCBA mask? You should not have to think of where your radio’s microphone is located in a time of urgent need.
- Do you know forcible egress techniques to free/rescue yourself while your rescuers initiate a rescue effort?
Making Sure Company Officers Are Prepared for Firefighter Distress Calls
The company officer is the most critical person on the fireground. While the IC and the safety officer are recognized as being important in much of the current fire service literature, the company officer often acts as the initial incident commander, the initial incident safety officer, and the safety officer for his or her crew. The company officer is often the person who sizes up the 911 event, determines the initial strategy and starts to complete tasks to fulfill that strategy.
A company officer must be highly proficient at conducting a situation evaluation and risk/benefit analysis; that officer must also know fire behavior in relation to a building’s construction. Also, the company officer must be good at crew resource management to properly use the crew’s talents and ensure their safety.
Overall, the company officer must work well under pressure; all of these incident tasks must be performed in about one and a half minutes or less. The fire attack needs to begin quickly in order to rescue victims and stop the fire.
The preparation of company officers, however, must begin long before any fire. That preparedness begins once a company officer is promoted and carries out each shift. Training and knowing your crew’s strengths, weaknesses, and specific talents will ensure that the best information is available to make game-day decisions.
Ensuring Command Officer Preparedness
In addition to company officers, command officers need to be well prepared for firefighting incidents. If you’re a company officer, are you good at initial and secondary size-ups? The initial size-up is important, but just as important is the secondary and ongoing size-up.
Also, do you perform a 360-degree evaluation as well? For instance:
- What has changed from the report of the first arriving officer after your arrival at the scene?
- Are conditions worsening?
- Is the initial attack line reporting that water is being directed on the fire?
- Have you heard an all-clear if conditions are getting worse?
- Are crews searching above the fire?
- Did the initial attack line use appropriate entry?
By now, I would hope that everyone has a basement fire policy where fires can be fought from the basement level if a walkout exit is present. Are you listening for key phrases that are spelled out in the Project Mayday Document, such as “It is getting hot!” or “We need more line!”?
These types of phrases have proceeded many Maydays. What plan do you have if you hear these phrases from your crew?
Mayday Call Preparation Involves the Entire Department
The prevention and management of Mayday calls is a departmental responsibility based on local, regional, and national trends and information. Ask your organization: Are you fully prepared? What are you doing each day to ensure you are prepared for any situation you will face in firefighting?