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The Multiple Methods of Maydays, Part 1 - The MBE Connection

Maydays can and do occur in several different ways. Firefighters must master the skills needed to initiate a Mayday in any situation at any given time, depending on the circumstances. Before everyone carried portable radios and PASS devices, firefighters were frequently trained to initiate a Mayday by tossing their helmet out the window, hoping to get the attention of others that there was a problem. It was the best option at the time. Never saying that tossing a helmet wouldn’t be “an” option today, nowadays there are several other methods which would likely come first.

Mayday initiation methods fall into the following categories:

  • Radio - Verbal
  • Radio - Orange Emergency Button (OEB)
  • Personal Alert Safety System (PASS) - Manual Activation
  • PASS - Motionless Activation
  • Witnessed Firefighter Emergency
  • Radio Frequency PASS (RF-PASS) and/or Wireless Accountability System (WAS)
  • RF Low Air Alert
  • Alternative Communications Systems (Equivalent to Texting (SMS) but with button pushes or gestures).
  • Tracking systems
  • PAR & Tag accountability: Identifying that a member is missing due to PARs and/or the fact that they didn’t pick up their tag, or check in at an appropriate time.

The Mayday system of most fire departments in 2015 is not only a redundant system, it is also a tiered system that lets us reach for our most familiar companion first – our portable radio – to call for help. Then, as the situation becomes more and more dire and no one acknowledges our situation, we move to less familiar but more drastic measures – the OEB, the PASS, the RF PASS/Wireless Accountability System – manual activation.

Every high tech solution has caveats we discover through trial and error and realistic training. The OEB for example, was and is too small on many radios for the gloved hand to push. In many situations the firefighter can’t even access it. Newer radio designs have addressed the size problem, but by itself, as is also the case with other systems, the OEB isn’t a total solution.

The goal of high tech systems like RF-PASS systems on the market is to get information out in real-time with enhanced data, like location, assignment, air level, name, etc. This information in a time compressed situation can be critical to the location and rescue of a down firefighter. But there are caveats and trade-offs for the high tech, and just because you have high tech, doesn’t mean you can skip the low tech.

As firefighters we must know when and how to use all of the above methods of notification to our benefit. As “modern” firefighters we have at our disposal a redundant system of notification methods that we rely on to let Command know we are experiencing trouble in the danger zone. If one method fails, we move to the next. If all manual methods fail, we rely on a system where default notifications take place without our intervention, such as the PASS device motionless activation, and finally the tag and PAR systems (likely too late). Hopefully we never encounter a situation where all methods fail, but those situations do exist.

Our training officers must avoid the formation of training scars which happens when members are continually given the same entrapment scenario where they always have the same choices, body/equipment maneuvers, and technical decisions resulting in successful outcomes. We have to think about situations, read case studies, and contemplate new ways to challenge firefighters to be able to “think” their way out of problems – problems that they may have never before encountered, but due to the fact that they know their options, equipment, and systems, are able to manipulate the virtual Mayday tool belt of technology and procedures to their advantage. This article (Part 1 of 2) will cover the several options available to the modern firefighter for calling for help, and discuss the prevention of training scars that may reduce success.

Firefighters who do train in a multitude of situations and do so frequently will develop a Mind-Body-Equipment (MBE) Connection that will allow them to manipulate their physical state in a manner that will enhance their ability to use their Mayday tools in a natural workflow. When you take a shower, brush your teeth, and comb or brush your hair in the morning, you think about other things while you do it because you have mastered the equipment and procedures necessary to take care of yourself. You don’t have to stop and think about it. The MBE Connection was established long ago. Firefighters who train frequently with their PPE, SCBA, PASS, radios, OEB, etc, develop that same MBE Connection, and can use it to their advantage. This is the “goal state” of Mayday training.

Many times the IC does not hear simple verbal Mayday requests due to scene noise, radio confusion, etc. This has happened at more than one multiple firefighter LODD incident. It is absolutely critical for a firefighter to understand the fact that they must be ready to quickly progress through the Mayday workflow. If the OEB is available and active on the firefighter’s radio, it sets off alerts either on the fireground, at the Dispatch center, or both. The OEB is also often programmed to redirect the firefighter’s portable radio to a specific talkgroup. All of this depends on programming and procedures that must be followed for success. If any of the procedures do not get followed, the system may fail.

For example, if the Safety Officer on the fireground does not have his or her radio tuned to the appropriate emergency talk group, they may not hear the OEB-initiated Mayday transmission. Again, the firefighter in distress is forced to progress to the next step to be noticed. The system being complicated and electronic, it may fail to alert dispatchers. It may be difficult or impossible for the firefighter to push the button. Many fire departments use radios that do not have the OEB system programmed at all, which requires skipping direct from verbal Mayday to PASS activation. The firefighter understanding this is absolutely essential!

Any time radio systems fail to notify supervisors of firefighters in distress, the next step in most Mayday communications SOPs is manual PASS activation. PASS activation emits a loud noise with the hope that someone within earshot will respond and investigate. This too has procedures associated with it that may succeed or fail. If firefighters nearby respond to the noise the chances are as good as can be for success due to simple proximity and response time.  But the fact is that firefighters are often lulled to sleep by constant false PASS activations on the fireground. The reality is that they may focus on their assigned tasks and never really pay attention to the PASS alert. The firefighter understanding this is absolutely essential!

If the firefighter is rendered unconscious, pinned down, etc., and remains motionless for approximately 30 seconds or longer, the PASS alerts by itself, notifying those nearby or on the outside via RF PASS if so equipped. This may be the last in the tiered system of notifications from the firefighters perspective and ability to signal others for help. The firefighter understanding this is absolutely essential!

Many departments have some type of radio telemetry integrated into their PASS, SCBA, or both. Collectively we’ll refer to these systems as RF PASS. When used within their design limits, these systems can send an inaudible digital radio signal to a management console on scene, setting off an alert. This notifies the person(s) monitoring the console to the firefighter in distress. Some of these systems also are capable of monitoring SCBA air levels, sending evacuation signals, etc. Think of these systems as a communications back-channel allowing non-verbal communications to take place in an environment where busy tactical radio channels may be clogged with activity and confusion. Where RF PASS systems fail is where building construction features, distance between units, or procedures and understanding of the technology throw up roadblocks to the radio signal. Knowledge of the system, its limitations, and the rules are essential. The firefighter understanding this is absolutely essential!

When using RF PASS systems, the person monitoring the console may be able to initiate a Mayday or firefighter emergency based on biofeedback or data such as SCBA low air situations. The firefighter understanding this is absolutely essential!

The last two methods are initiated by someone other than the firefighter in distress themselves.  One is the witnessed firefighter emergency where a partner or firefighter within view sees a life threatening incident occur, and subsequently calls a Mayday for the firefighter in trouble. The other is the firefighter who is missing upon an accountability check or at the end of the incident or during a PAR.

Each and every one of these methods has different initiation procedures. For example, the firefighter who cannot communicate verbally must be able to progress to the next logical step without hesitation while taking steps to save themselves and maybe their partner(s). This set of skills takes practice and repetition in varying environments to master the skills and judgement necessary to make appropriate decisions under duress. It is where the firefighter must make a connection between mind, body, and equipment. The MBE Connection as a mission-focused training objective states that a firefighter must be trained to use their mind to stay calm and progress through the necessary workflow in a firefighter emergency, use their body to take actions with fluid movement and reduced effort, combining their lifesaving equipment in expert fashion that will extend their chances of survival.

Many firefighters, rightfully so, conduct self-training on Maydays using their equipment as part of a workout (workfit) program. This is a great way to practice. By breathing down a cylinder, getting short of breath doing some type of fitness activity, then putting yourself through a reduced profile escape maneuver, for example, you are emulating real life. Having a partner monitor your wellbeing and communicating with you via radio makes this activity safe and more realistic (Be cautious about what situations you place yourself in without supervision and communications, or the Mayday may get real). Use caution to follow existing procedures that would actually be used in a real situation so that training scars don’t develop. If you “cheat” during training, you will “cheat” when the chips are down and your body does what it has been trained to do.

Fire service supervisors must be prepared to manage communications and tactical response no matter what method is used by the firefighter(s) to initiate the Mayday. With the layers of high tech gadgetry that are now commonly connected to our firefighters, troubleshooting, filtering, identifying, and responding to emergency signaling devices now becomes a multi-hour learning course with interpretive feedback and lots of hands-on trial and error. Part 2 will cover Mayday situation management and dealing with the various methods of signaling.

All firefighters and officers, including Chief officers, should practice personal survival maneuvers and master the various modes of Mayday signaling. All supervising officers and members who may assist with the management of a Mayday should practice their roles in the management of the communications and check-down procedures surrounding the situation. Emotions will run high in the real world situation. Finding all the holes in the system in advance will make this emotional event manageable.

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