By Mark vonAppen

Just for fun assemble your personnel on the apparatus floor, then have them turnout and throw their air pack for time (if you’re the one leading the drill you have to do it too – sorry).  Once they are sufficiently frustrated with you (because it is either too easy for them or they look like they are trying to fight off the rapacious spider monkey clinging to their back), ask them what their MAYDAY parameters are and have them call a MAYDAY. 

We conducted MAYDAY training for our folks (the whole thing – complete with insidious, diabolical props and obstacles) about 2 years ago and have subsequently trained about 20 probies in the intervening months.   At 6 months to a year’s time, the training seems to disappear – even after we tell them to practice calling a MAYDAY every time they check their SCBA.  The training seems to slink off into a dark nether region of the brain never to be retrieved again. There’s a word for it – when vital training is allowed to lapse and we surrender to the pedestrian.  The word is complacency – and it is as nasty a word as you will ever hear in our profession.
Ask 10 firefighters to call a MAYDAY a year after the training and 8 of 10 will have the same reaction – if they never practice.  Their eyes roll back – they tilt their head and purse their lips in thought.  Their first words will not be, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”  But rather, “Oh, (expletive).” Or, “Umm…”

We must find a way to reach our people though training in some way every time they report for duty.  The reaction to MAYDAY situations must be immediate.

MAYDAY and survival training are forms of “stress inoculation training” (SIT).  They are designed to create emotional responses to stressful situations in order to achieve a desired response.  These emotional bookmarks can become less vivid in the eye of our mind if we do not revisit these stressful training situations with regularity – this is true of any skill. 

Keep their heads in the game.  Make training relevant, interesting, make sure it involves everyone, and most of all, make it fun.

Ron Avery is a law enforcement trainer and a world-class competitive pistol shooter.  He pushes the envelope in terms of stress related training.  He calls the process “stress acclimatization.” The concept is that prior successes under stressful circumstances acclimatize you to similar situations and promote future success.  Avery describes the process this way:
“With proper training and the requisite conditioning and practice, we can achieve skills thought by others to be impossible.  There is a whole realm of possibilities we can teach and train (personnel) to perform.  Stress acclimatization is about measuring precise doses of stress followed by waves of recovery and then repeating these cycles very specifically.  There must be time for adaptation to take place and there must be enough training, repeated over time, to help it stick.”
Without regular practice, skills become dull, reactions to the stressor sluggish.

Individuals and crews can practice calling the Mayday using the following scenarios:

Have personnel read the following scenarios one at a time to give them an idea of the situation they have encountered.  When they have read one of the scenarios they are to call for help using the acronym NUCAN.

Scenario # 1

You are assigned to E1, your task is fire attack.  You and your partner enter a SFD via the A side door.  The floor collapses, sending you into the basement.  You cannot locate your partner, and are pinned under debris.  You have ¾ air remaining.

Call the MAYDAY.
Scenario # 2
You and your partner from E2 are backing up fire attack on the primary hose line when you lose voice contact with your partner and lose contact with the hose line.  You are in a large commercial building, approximately 200’ inside.  You attempt to find the hose line several times without success, and your low air warning device has activated.

Call the MAYDAY.
Scenario # 3
You are assigned to T1, your task is primary search.  You and your partner enter a 2 story SFD via A side door ascend the stairs and begin a primary search on the 2nd floor.  During the search, the ceiling collapses dropping wires on your partner causing him to become entangled.  You attempt to free your partner, but succeed only in entangling him further.  Fire and heat conditions are getting worse.  You are both running low on air and neither of you have wire cutters in you turnouts.  You are both at just above ¼ air remaining.

Call the MAYDAY.
Scenario # 4
You are assigned to E3 and are performing a search with a partner in a SFD when the roof collapses on you and your partner.  You entered on the B side of house via an exterior window.  You are uninjured and mobile, but your partner is unconscious and pinned.  You are cut off from your primary exit and the fire is advancing on you.  You have ½ a tank of air remaining.

Call the MAYDAY.

                Utilizing FACT parameters, call the Mayday based on the scenario listed above (NUCAN report)
                State the actions you would take (turn on PASS, light, turn up radio volume)
                State follow up information (sights, sounds, floor coverings)
Sample Mayday message:
Firefighter: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.”
IC: “Firefighter calling Mayday, give me your NUCAN report.”
Firefighter: “IC, firefighter Jones, Engine 3. (Name and Unit)
Searching first floor Bravo side. (Assignment and Location)
There was a collapse; I fell into the basement. I am alone, pinned, and cannot move. (Condition)
I am turning on my PASS and light. I have half a tank. (Actions and Air)
I need immediate assistance.” (Needs)
To add a greater degree of difficulty and realism, have the firefighter in distress don full PPE including SCBA mask and perform a physically demanding task prior to communicating the MAYDAY on their portable radio.  Place the lost firefighter in a remote location from the rescuer.  The rescuer should attempt to obtain NUCAN report from the lost firefighter (as the RIC group supervisor would) and take notes as they do so.  

Once the transmission is complete, the participants should get together to compare notes.  This is done to see if the rescuer (playing the role of RIC or IC) was able to extract key information from the lost firefighter.  Be sure to use a non – monitored tactical channel if using radios for practice.

Keep their heads in the game.  Make training relevant, interesting, make sure it involves everyone, and most of all, make it fun.
Successfully navigating the perils of a career in firefighting requires complete buy in – discipline, total commitment to training, and to the mission of safety.  It involves global awareness (meta-knowledge) a synthesis of wisdom accumulated over a career, training the right way, our perceptions, processing risk, and discoveries of the ever-evolving environment.  Only through this type of hyper-awareness are we better fire ground combatants.  Practice does not necessarily make perfect, practice makes permanent.

There is a great piece on FSW called “Stay the Course” by Gary Lane about guarding against complacency.  

Check it out.

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  1. Mark,
    Great write up and topic. Can I offer one thing that is a slight tweak though? We should train our people to call the initial mayday like this: "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, second floor"! Why? Because that may be the only transmission to get out and provides the two most important pieces of information in the simplest format, 1-someone's in trouble, 2-they're on the second floor. If nothing further is ever heard from them again, we have a starting point to work from. All of the other stuff listed in a NUCAN, CAN, LUNAR report is great, but radios fail, people panic and pass out, traffic gets walked on or missed. Make the first transmission count the most. Just my two cents. Call me if you wanna chat some more on it. -Gary Lane