Boston tragedy reminds of mayday training importance

Two members of Boston's Engine 33 were killed in a fast-moving fire March 26. Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Two members of Boston’s Engine 33 were killed in a fast-moving fire March 26. Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

*This article appeared in the April 2 edition of the Cape May County Herald.*

Last week, two Boston firefighters were killed after becoming trapped in the basement of a multi-story building on the city’s back bay.

The crew, not long after entering the structure, declared a mayday, and crews were unfortunately unable to rescue the firefighters before they died in the fire.

A mayday is an emergency distress call used over the radio when a firefighter is in an emergency situation, one where he or she is in imminent life-threatening danger.

Maydays often result in lifesaving actions, but only if multiple steps are implemented by departments to ensure the best possible rate of success.

In order to accomplish this, its important that departments develop a strong understanding of what a mayday is, how it is to be transmitted, and what procedures are to be followed to ensure it is ended with a successful rescue.

When a firefighter encounters a situation where he or she is in immediate distress, they make a transmission over the radio to let those outside know they are in trouble, and allow for resources to be deployed for their rescue.

One of the first steps in the mayday process is that firefighters know how to call for help when they become distressed. Preparing firefighters in advance and getting them accustomed to the dialogue needed in the time of need can help to kept firefighters calmer, and in turn, more coherent on the radio.

A simple acronym, known as LUNAR, is commonly used to help firefighters remember the information that needs to be relayed to the incident commander.

Information imperative in the rescue of a trapped firefighter are covered by the acronym: Location, Unit, Name, Assignment, and Resources needed for escape.

After the transmission of a mayday on the fireground radio, a fire dispatcher becomes a critical source of communication.

When a mayday is heard by the dispatch center on the fire operations channel, a mayday alert tone should be dispatched over all channels associated with the incident by the dispatch center for several seconds.

All communication on the channel which the mayday has been called should transition to another channel in order to allow the trapped firefighters, the incident commander and the dispatcher to have unopposed communications.

Fire departments often will train in-house for a mayday scenario, practicing on private radio channels or without radio transmissions at all. The best way for firefighters to become comfortable and calm in conveying a real mayday is to practice relaying one on a consistent basis.

Maydays thankful aren’t something that dispatchers in Cape May County encounter with the same frequency as a dispatch in a city such as New York or Boston.

But it’s important to work with your local dispatch center to incorporate their personnel in mayday training drills, enabling them to become just as comfortable dealing with the simulated situation as the firefighter simulating distress is.

Incident commanders must also have an effective system for firefighter accountability in place following a rescue of firefighters to ensure that all firefighters are accounted for. This is usually done through a PAR, or personnel accountability report, where command will receive reports from each unit on scene.

Many departments have begun to include a section in their standard operating guidelines regarding calling a mayday during an active incident. One of the best examples online can be found at, the website for the South River District Volunteer Fire Department in Fairfield, Virginia.

No two mayday situations are the same, but we have a responsibility to our fallen brothers and sisters to learn from the past and prevent further strategy. Train as if you life depends on it—because it does. Stay safe.


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