TIME FOR A “MAYDAY”?

Written by Contributing Editor Captain Willie Wines Jr.

Roanoke Fire-EMS Department

I don’t know if I’m “old school” or not but I will admit to having some “old school” ways. With that said, I should also add that I’m acutely aware of that point and work hard to mesh the old school with modern advancements and technologies. I’m one of the lucky ones, a 2 nd generation Firefighter who followed my father’s footsteps and brought with me some of the honor and traditions that he and the many others before us have passed along. When I say “old school” I think you can all put someone from your own Department (past or present) into the category. The guys from the days when we had “wooden ladders and iron firemen”, or the “smoke eaters” with “iron lungs”, the men who worked before the letters “EMS” were placed behind “FIRE”. Well, hopefully, those days are behind us. You need only note the changes in today’s toxic furnishings or our “bigger and better” lightweight construction methods to see just why these changes were needed. Throughout my 17 year career I have witnessed positive changes in just about every aspect of our job i.e. enclosed cabs, positive pressure SCBA, intergraded PASS devices, thermal imaging cameras, positive pressure ventilation, IMS, portable radios and the list goes on and on. Despite all this progress, we still lack in the area where it means the most, SAVING OUR OWN! I mentioned earlier that I have tried to adapt to new technologies and a good example is this very web site. I never had typing in school, yet every day I work, I use the computer to write reports, log statistics etc. “hunting and pecking” but using a keyboard none the less. My morning routine consists of checking several web sites in an effort to keep informed of not only local issues but national ones as well. Let me say here that it is not my intent to be a “Monday morning quarterback” but there have been several Fire Service fatalities and “near misses” of late. I have read the articles and listened to the tapes and there’s one thing that keeps popping into my mind. The “MAYDAYS” are late. Too late! Every time I hear a vibra-alert sounding behind the first call of MAYDAY, my skin crawls. Why did this person wait so long to sound a warning? Did they not know they were in trouble? Did they not have ROAM training (Rules Of Air Management) in their Department?

I think back to 2 articles I read on Firehouse.com, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY from 2001 and When would you call MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY? from 2002. Both articles point out the fact that we as a Fire Service need to instill in our members early on just when we are in a MAYDAY situation and that it is not only ok but essential that we transmit it. In my company, I use the MAYDAY drill that the Chesterfield, Va. Fire Department used in its Lieutenant’s testing process back in 2001 (found in the MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY article), and the results are most often frightening. I have added my own twist in that I will have a new member of the company team up with a Senior Firefighter, both in full PPE, SCBA, masks blackened, and radios. I direct the drill as if it is a search drill where I want to observe the new guys techniques. They start out great, working as a team and communicating well. Quickly into the drill (as pre-arranged with the senior man) I have the Senior Firefighter separate himself from the junior member (usually by directing him in some way like “you go left here and I’ll go right”). After he separates himself, the Senior Firefighter has completed his portion of the drill, removes his mask, stops all communication with the junior firefighter and joins the rest of the company to observe. It becomes a learning experience not just for the junior man but for all members of the company as we watch the probie’s reactions to now being lost and alone.

Today, despite all we’ve learned and all our advancements, we are still killing firemen due to temporal distortion, reluctance to relinquish control of ones situation, channeled attention, loss of situational awareness, fear of the unknown, fear of retribution, lack of procedural knowledge, attempting to fix the problem, pride or denial. What makes this problem even worse is the fact that situations constituting a MAYDAY have expanded as well (or these situations just haven’t been seen as MAYDAYs all along). My Department was very recently hit with the tragic loss of a young Captain. This was not a “Line of Duty Death”, he wasn’t taken while battling a 3 alarm fire in the middle of the night nor while rescuing children from a burning home. Sadly, he took his own life, and in reflection of the impact this incident had on me, my men and our department as a whole, my thoughts kept returning to “MAYDAY”. I’m not speaking now of the fire situation MAYDAY, but a personal MAYDAY. This Firefighter was in trouble. He needed HELP! I don’t know if he was taught that it’s ok and necessary to declare a MAYDAY. I’m not even sure if he realized (or any of us for that matter) that he could call MAYDAY for personal issues. I do know that as a Company Officer, from this day on, the men under me will know and understand when and how to declare a MAYDAY for ANY situation.

In true Fire Department fashion, we must take a tragedy such as this and learn from it. On the fire ground, we have RIT, we “send in the bulls”. On the personal issues, we have mentoring, an open ear, EAP (Employee Assistance Program) and many other options. The EAP in our city provides discrete counseling and resources for troubled marriages, financial problems, drug and alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, weight issues, physiological issues and more. I can imagine as Fire / EMS providers, most of you have experienced one or more of these problems. Each of us carry that call or calls that we continue to relive and can never forget. A work schedule of 24 hours, a second and sometimes a third job to make ends meet, missing the kid’s ball games or Scouting events etc. The “old school” mentality was to “suck it up”. “Are we men or mice?”. Most of us bottle it up and carry it with us throughout our careers. Others go home and open a bottle, while some return home to kiss the cat and kick the wife. Either way, we LOOSE! Considering our everyday stresses and working this profession post 9/11, MAYDAY is not as simple as being lost, missing or trapped anymore. And, in my mind, we haven’t even gotten that part right yet. As Company Officers, it is our obligation to teach and instill in our companies when and how to call MAYDAY. Without a doubt, it needs to be done at the entry level, but today is not too late. GET STARTED! We have no other option but to make this second nature to them! Their lives literally depend on it.

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