Lost and Found
By Ray McCormack
The thought on declaring a Mayday is to announce it for all to hear - and to do it without fear. Fear, it seems, is a reason for delayed delivery of a Mayday signal. While we should not be ashamed to proclaim a May Day, we should also build in a personal checklist of the situation into to our proclamation. There are only two types of Maydays messages: One type is to describe a situation of danger or perceived danger for someone else on the fireground. The other type is based on personal need and is self-given.
Maydays are rarely immediately actionable by third parties. The message must first be sent out clearly enough to be understood by the receiving party. Once received by those in command, an assistance evaluation is made and the next notification in the chain is given to the recue team. This built-in Mayday answering system is the standard and does not include rescuer reflex time.
When declaring a self Mayday, the originator must realize that help is not instantly coming. Of course, no additional help will ever be forthcoming without a declaration. During the waiting period, the firefighter in need must understand that post-announcement time requires self-preservation skills. The threat to the firefighter may disappear soon after the declaration or continue. Having to declare a Mayday is a shock, sometimes the event causes survival complications while other shocks are based upon inner-conflict. The aftershock period is a stark reality and includes what you do – or what happens next. If given a choice, hopefully it will be prudent and self-sustaining.
A Mayday for a lost or missing firefighter is probably the most common May Day given. They can be given by the individual firefighter or those who now cannot locate the firefighter. When we cannot locate a fellow firefighter that was within our sight or voice contact – and now is not – we must ask ourselves if this initial loss of direct communication has reached the level of a Mayday. We must use our options such as attempted radio contact to the “missing,” organize and contact those around us to assist in the tracking and notification to command that a firefighter has become ‘unanswerable.’
When a firefighter goes missing, those working with them must take a breath and realize that the situation is initially theirs to solve. The reason is: you are located in the general area. How often do you check on your people? We have to develop a system of communication with our interior partners so that status updates are frequent. If you believe that an untenable area has been entered by the missing, or some other event has occurred, collect your thoughts first; prioritize your needs; contact command – and understand that you may have the best chance of quickly locating (the missing).
No doubt the mission changes when a May Day is declared. As much as we would like to think that things will progress smoothly once this transmission is given, this is hopeful at best. The location of this event plays a specific role in how our regular operations will fare. If the May Day is declared by or for the only team inside the building, then operational support beyond rapid intervention will be required. There is no set standard because all events differ; however, we must attempt to limit our exposure to events that cause us to become part of the rescue effort. This effort is enhanced by knowing your tactics and understanding how vital early mitigation is to future survival.
Losing contact with firefighters varies from equipment failures, disorientation and human error. While we strive to eliminate as many of these variables as much as possible, it is a never ending battle. We need to develop in firefighters an understanding of how to operate and communicate together – and realize that when smoke obscures your vision – and windows are breaking, people are screaming, radios’ blaring, and saws cutting, that it might be hard to “find” each other – and that Maydays, while given without guilt, must also be given with substance.
A Mayday is a distress call that stresses our people and requires the highest priority and respect on the fireground. We have built into our operations separate teams who are on scene just in case one is given. The fire service has tried to eradicate the shame factor of declaring a Mayday under the auspice of waiting; refusing or denying one does not help the firefighter. A Mayday does not relinquish our efforts to remain tactically safe, it increases it.
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