photo of injured firefighter being carried on a stretcher by 2 other firefighters

The Latest in The Responder Safety Series

Few firefighters witness a mayday first-hand. I recall an incident during my early firefighting years following a partial structural collapse in an apartment building with lightweight roof construction.  In my humble opinion, a mayday declaration was called for, but the lieutenant failed to do so. Fortunately, interior members reacted appropriately, self-evacuated safely – averting certain harm. In subsequent years and after becoming a student of firefighter safety in earnest, I am encouraged by the increase in mayday training, rapid intervention team development and the proliferation of on-scene responder safety efforts.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) definition: “… a mayday condition occurs “when a firefighter(s) cannot safely exit an IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) zone”.

However, before the condition arises, I hope we as firefighters, EMS responders and incident commanders are prepared to activate any and all means to address the challenge. For this article, I will focus on fireground operations.  These phases and steps can be applied to different types of incidents.  The order of decisions, the speed in which they are accomplished (think a hazmat incident that sometimes unfolds slowly) may vary, but the overall goal is the same – reacting to responders who cannot safely exit an immediately dangerous situation or area.  The basic framework of this article is to dissect the mayday continuum into phases:

Before we get there, let’s review a few statistics to illustrate the subject.


Just a few figures to establish context: Over half of the firefighters involved in a mayday were between 32 and 40 years of age.  Their years of experience on the job was most often between 6 and 15 years. And, over half (54%) of those involved in maydays were members of the first-due company.  Members were separated from their hose line 25% of the time, fell through the roof (22%) or experienced a failure of a stairway or basement floor collapse. Those of you protecting areas where abandoned structures are prevalent, keep in mind that 38% of maydays occurred in abandoned buildings.

And of most note, 10% of maydays were resolved by Rapid Intervention Teams (RITs). This is not to say RIT’s are not worth the time, effort and cost to train and develop them.  Rather, the thrust of this information gathered by The Mayday Project and distributed by many fire rescue groups is that it is incumbent upon all responders and those who command operations and manage incidents to be ever-mindful of mayday possibilities, prepare for and be ready to react to the inevitability of a mayday on their watch


Most ICs abide by the rule of thumb when sizing up an incident: whenever possible, view all sides of the target.  However, data shows that in 50% of the mayday events, no size-up occurred. If a complete, timely, accurate size-up cannot be performed, these critical questions cannot be answered:  What do I have?  Where is it going? What do I need?  These questions will provide information that incident commanders, safety officers and responders must possess to ensure a safe, positive outcome. 

Further, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) a subsidiary of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found issues related to maydays including:


There is a misnomer that emergency scene events resulting in mayday reports occur spontaneously; without warning.  This is for the most part not true.  As the scene builds there are often telltale signs that given proper attention will cause the IC and operating crews to prepare for and in some cases predict the potential for maydays. We are not soothsayers, but given appropriate attention to and knowledge of building construction, fire behavior and crew capabilities, the probability of mayday events can be reduced. Understanding and utilizing facets of mayday phases can establish the groundwork for positive mayday outcomes.

Phase 1 (P1) occurs before the mayday declaration. This is the awareness and operational training, phase when responders, incident commanders, safety officers, trainers and anyone responsible for the safety and welfare of responders prepare for a mayday.  To achieve this members should be involved in the following:

Phase 2 (P2) is as the mayday occurs.  When the IC and fireground units hear, “Mayday!”,

“mayday!”, “mayday!”, the switch flips. 

  1. The IC acknowledges and declares a mayday.
  2. The mayday declaring company establishes U.N.A.R. or another mnemonic.

L – location

U – unit

N –  name if not unit declaring

A – air supply and/or last assignment

R – resources and/or assistance needed

  1. The IC moves all other operations to another channel.
  2. Keep mayday members on the initial channel.*
  3. Secure mayday channel with dispatch.
  4. Confirm rapid intervention company/crew preparation or insertion.
  5. Call additional alarms.
  6. Request additional incident commander.
  7. Ensure adequate safety personnel response.
  8. Request law enforcement, EMS, and emergency management.
  9. Over resource if necessary.
  10. Manage on-scene egos and emotions.
  11. Prepare for the media onslaught.
  12. Get in front of the social message(s).

Phase 3 (P3) occurs following the mayday event and is often the forgotten phase.  “Jorge Santayana said, Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  So, it is necessary to review all the actions that led up to the mayday incident and all the supporting actions and players who contributed.  Avoiding this phase contributes to the higher probability that a similar event will occur. Following the rescue of affected members:

The bullets and recommendations above are certainly not an exhaustive list of activities and decisions that responders and commanders should undertake.  And, the intent is not to change any policies that your department has established.  It is, however suggestions that one should entertain, before, during and after the fateful day arrives.        

* 40% of maydays were complicated because incorrect radio channels were assigned or used.


Frank Montes de Oca served as a firefighter/paramedic for over 38 years, served as fire chief in Springfield, Ohio and Osceola County, Florida. His last appointment was as Emergency Services Director in Orange County (Chapel Hill), NC.  Throughout his career he has been involved in training, managing, and developing firefighter safety, leadership, and organizational change. Chief Montes de Oca is an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and qualified to present training programs for OSHA and the EPA. He can be reached at