Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mayday! Are you prepared to go home?

Firefighter Mayday. No one wants to think about it happening and many don’t think it can happen to them. If you think it cannot happen, you are oh so wrong.  Are you as a firefighter prepared to make that distress call under the emotional and physical demand of the situation? Have you given yourself permission to put aside your pride and make the mayday transmission that could potentially save your life? Are you as an officer prepared to manage the mayday and subsequent Rapid Intervention Crew deployment without letting your emotions run wild?

A large obstacle today that creates situations in which firefighters enter into a mayday parameter is not enough training on the basics.

Bottom line. When you forget the basics and your skills get rusty, you will put yourself in a situation that can make you fall into one of the mayday parameters. You may push your luck 99 times and be fine. That 100th time, those shortcuts and mistakes will catch you. 

You remember that salty old captain that would say in your rookie academy, “ the basics will save your life”? People would most likely roll their eyes. You know what? He was right on the money. The basics of firefighting will enable you to go home in the morning. Yes you are a 10-year veteran and yes you have seen some fire. The minute you forget the basics, you are no better than the green new guy on his first day. Complacency is dangerous and deadly. 

The basics or lack of basics is one major reason firefighters enter into a mayday parameter. For example, lightweight truss construction under fire will fail quickly. Knowing the signs of an impending collapse is a basic that comes with experience and knowledge of building construction, along with knowing the characteristics and behavior of the construction type in fire conditions.

However, this job is dangerous and bad things will happen that are out of your control. The only thing that would make this job safer would be to just go ahead and do away with interior firefighting. Many “new age” firefighters endorse this concept. Don’t forget that firefighting is not a safe job and you signed up to take that risk to make a difference.  It is managing that level of risk through training on basics and firefighter survival that will lessen the potential for a poor outcome. Learn the basics, know your job, serve, and go home.

Several years ago, I was in a large residential house fire. The home had been struck by lightening where a natural gas line was running through a first floor. There was a full basement. Fire was inside of that first floor. We were in the basement pulling ceiling and hitting the fire. Visibility was very low. When the order came to exit and rehab, I told my officer that I had to go back through the basement and grab the TIC off a pool table. Alone I walked through the basement, which had hallways and rooms. After about 2 minutes, I realized I was lost. I no longer knew which way was out or where the pool table was. Time to call a mayday?

It should have been the time. I was disoriented in a large residential mansion with limited air supply. My breathing began to speed up as I felt that little bit of panic. I didn’t call the mayday, as I should have, mostly because of a lack of training and experience. I ended up finding my way out by following a wall and I got lucky. Several things to take away from this story: never set a tool down, stay with your crew or maintain awareness of where they went and know when to call the mayday. It can be canceled. We need to stop being tough guys and make the call when the criteria fits. Only after the mayday has been called can the firefighter begin to attempt to fix the situation.

I recently attended a National Fire Academy course on Firefighter Mayday. This course was taught in line with the State of North Carolina Rapid Intervention Certification. The instructor, Chief Tony Bailey, a Wake County, NC District Chief at the Stony Hill Fire Department, gave a lecture in the classroom that sent home one bulletproof point. 

“Firefighters must give themselves permission prior to getting on the fire truck to call a mayday.” –Dr. Burton Clark

As a National Fire Academy recognized course, the hands on training portion had to meet several mayday parameters. I encourage all companies to make these props at your firehouse and train regularly on it. These are all training scenarios that can be simulated with a low budget in your department.

Lost- Have the firefighter follow a charged hose line with their mask blacked out. Once they enter into a hallway or room, simulate a collapse that has blocked their exit of the room.

8.     Stuck- Using an entanglement box, create a situation in which a firefighter has become stuck. Ask the firefighter if he has any hand tools in his/her gear and have them attempt to reach it. (This same situation can be used with several ropes or wires to entangle the SCBA of the firefighter if an entanglement box is not available)

     Trapped from a collapse- Using a section of chain link fence, have two instructors pin a firefighter to the ground while the firefighter is following a hoseline.

     Fall- Using a hinged floor or ramp, create a collapse of the floor in which the firefighter falls onto two mattresses from a height of about 4 foot.

At each mayday parameter station, the firefighter must gain access to his/her radio and properly transmit a mayday over the radio. Taking your gloves off is unacceptable as it will bring an instructor telling you that your hand is now burned. 

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr.Burton Clark of the National Fire Academy about Mayday. Dr.Clark is was a major player in developing our current mayday procedures and training that is used in this country. The above quote as well as much of our modern Mayday system is derived from Navy pilots. These pilots go over the steps of their mayday and ejection procedures before each flight. During my conversation with Dr.Clark, he made the point, “ you check your SCBA daily to ensure there is air to keep you alive, why do we as firefighters not take the time to refresh ourselves on the mayday system and procedures prior to our shift?”  The Navy pilots also are trained that they will give themselves permission to eject and call a mayday if the situation presents itself. Dr.Clark used this concept to develop the training quote listed above; “Firefighters must give themselves permission prior to getting on the fire truck to call a mayday.”

Dr.Clark made one major point during our conversation. “ Firefighters cannot call a mayday if they don’t have a radio or leave it on the truck.” That sentence got me thinking. Why in heaven’s name would a firefighter that had access to a portable radio not take the radio with them when they get off of the truck? That is just crazy. Beyond that, why in 2012 do we not have a portable radio available for every seat on the fire truck? I don’t want to hear about budgets and the economy. Chiefs must find the money. I am sure there is something you can cut or do without to purchase some radios. When it comes to making this purchase, you are making the purchase of an important tool that could allow someone to do as they are trained, call for help, and go home to their family.

On to the officers now………

Are you ready to manage that mayday? Do you have your policy memorized? This will be the most stressful time of your career. Muscle memory has to take place. Training takes over and you continue in game mode. That is if you took the time to train on it. Has the department created any worksheets or guides that are on scene of calls for the IC to help him in the event a mayday is called? Bottom line officers:  you need to be ready. If you fail, your firefighter and possibly more could die.

Training Challenge:
I suggest that every company officer create several flash cards that detail a situation that meets a mayday parameter. When you are at the grocery store or the firehouse, hand your firefighter a card. As soon as the firefighter gets the card he says “mayday, mayday, mayday.” The officer answers in the appropriate manner and the firefighter proceeds with his mayday message per the department policy. This teaches firefighters to always pay attention to their surroundings and maintain awareness of where you are inside a building. This helps the officer create muscle memory for dealing with the mayday from a command standpoint. Don’t forget officer, you need to be able to call a mayday also. Give a few cards to your newest firefighter and tell him to catch you off guard and let your senior firefighter or newest officer run the command side. Play with it for every shift day for one month. At the end of the month, do some hands on mayday training and see how much improvement has occurred. You will be surprised.

Remember, the basics are just as important now as when you were a rookie. Training on your mayday procedure regularly is also important to maintain a state of readiness. If the basics fail you, which they rarely will, you have a plan B. The Plan B that is not giving up. The Plan B that will allow you to go home. Stay safe out there.

A special thank you to Dr. Burton Clark of the National Fire Academy for contributing to this blog post, Captain Brian Goodwin for assistance with photo and video, Chief Tony Bailey and the Stony Hill Fire Department for use of their training facility which assisted in creation of this blog post. 

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