I recently was contacted by a fire officer asking whether their mayday procedure should include a provision for a dedicated mayday channel for the distressed crew to transmit their post-mayday traffic on. This is a question I’ve been asked often enough that I want to dedicate an article to the topic of mayday communications procedures.
The mayday environment
When training firefighters on mayday procedures you should create conditions that resemble the real-life environment they will face during a mayday event. However, it will be nearly impossible to evoke the kind of stress response a firefighter will experience when they are in fear for their life. The stress will be intense and under such conditions the brain will be in survival mode. Under these conditions the responder may struggle to remain composed. It may not be reasonable to expect the responder will remember to change the radio channel.
Why change channels
On the surface, it makes sense to give a distressed crew dedicated access to airtime. A distressed crew may not have time to wait to transmit critical messages. During a mayday it is likely the amount of radio communications is going to increase as command attempts to gather information and coordinate rescue efforts. Overwhelming the radio channel a distressed crew needs to communicate on does not seem prudent. The reasonable solution is to segregate the radio traffic of operational personnel from the distressed personnel.
How to segregate radio traffic
Coordinating the change of radio channels in the middle of an incident can be extremely challenging. Inevitably, some personnel will hear the message to change channels and some will not. Some will change to the proper channel, some will not. You’re even at risk that the distressed personnel, in confusion, will change to the newly assigned operational channel. The entire concept of changing radio channels in a high-stress situation is fraught with challenge. The challenge can be made greater depending on the complexity of your radios.
Who should move?
If you decide to change radio channels, it is the non-distressed personnel who should change channels, not the distressed personnel. This is not to suggest the non-distressed personnel are not going to be feeling stress. They will be. One or more of their comrades are in peril. That is going to be stressful. Stress notwithstanding, the non-mayday personnel are in the better position to make the change.
Procedure – Training – Practice
If you’re going to expect personnel to change channels during a mayday event, it must be set-up properly. This includes the development of a coherent mayday procedure that stipulates when and how radio channels are to change. Then, personnel need to be trained on when and how to change channels. Finally, personnel need to practice changing radio channels under conditions similar to a mayday environment. I cannot stress enough how important it is to ensure the training and practice is realistic and repetitive.
Watch for human behavior traits
As you put personnel under stress, you will witness human behavior traits that will be displayed during real incidents. Attempting to fix these nuances with policies is going to prove frustrating, if not catastrophic. Rather, watch how people behave and make sure the policies and training support expected human behavior. Otherwise, you’re at risk of having policies that people will not… cannot comply with. They won’t be doing it on purpose. But the behavior will, nonetheless, be predictable.
Rich Gasaway’s Advice
The best way to prepare for a mayday incident is to develop a sound procedure, train personnel on the procedure and practice in realistic and repetitive ways. If those procedures involve changing radio channels, personnel need to practice this maneuver in the toughest of conditions. If, during your practice, it doesn’t work, consider changing the procedure or intensifying the practice.
Once you get your procedure set and personnel become good at it, the practice must then become part of on-going training for personnel. Muscles learn from muscle memory and the muscle memory needs to be refreshed periodically. This applies whether you’re doing hose lays, ladder throws or changing radio channels.
Strive to keep radio traffic short and simple.
1. Discuss how radio communications should be managed during a mayday event.
2. Develop and implement a mayday communications management procedure.
3. Train personnel on the procedure.
4. Practice the procedure in realistic and repetitive ways.
5. Adjust the procedure if it’s not working as expected.
6. Repeat steps 3-5 until you find a procedure that works in a high stress environment.
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