Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Issue 1 and Volume 13.

You walk into the firehouse to the sound of raised voices. In a firehouse, that is not terribly uncommon, and sometimes blowing off a little steam can be a good thing, especially in a world filled with long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense activity. In this case, however, you instantly assess that this is much more than just a disagreement over football scores. On entering the kitchen, you are confronted with a serious situation: a company officer literally standing between two firefighters who are about to physically tear each other’s heads off. Mayday!

“What the hell is going on?” you ask in a voice that unquestionably signals your entrance into the room. Suddenly, everyone is silent. “Nothing, chief.” Clearly, this is not nothing. You call the company officer into the office to get the story. You should already be thinking about several things: First and foremost, if the tones go off right now, can this company respond? You should have a plan in your head to have the company replaced on a call should they be dispatched in the moments needed to determine what is going on in the station. You should be prepared to place the company out of service or run short, depending on the staffing in the station.

The officer tells you that earlier today the crew was sent to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post for a homecoming event for a local military veteran returning from a war zone. As the service started, a band began to play the national anthem, and all members of the engine company stood at attention, shoulder to shoulder, in front of the wagon—except one member. As the music started, the member turned his back on the crowd assembled at the event and stood silently, facing the engine. As soon as the national anthem concluded, the member turned around and resumed his position with the other members of the company. This evoked extremely strong emotions in the rest of the company and in the eyes of the public. After the event concluded, the officer hustled the members back onto the engine and returned to the station, where the barely controlled emotions boiled over. That’s about the time that you entered the firehouse. To complicate matters, the member who turned his back … is a combat veteran of the same war. Ready? Go.

The scenario just described is not fantasy. As an officer, you must be prepared for the day when you will be confronted with a personnel issue that is so extreme it will rival a fireground Mayday. Have you ever been on the fireground when a Mayday is called? Chaos ensues as personnel scramble to address a bad situation. In recent years, the fire service has come to realize that, for incident commanders to have any chance of successfully navigating a Mayday, a basic checklist is essential. The main goal of such checklists is to ensure that some critical element is not missed.

A Mayday event is dramatically different when viewed through the prism of a company officer’s eyes vs. a chief officer’s, and when placed under intense pressure we revert to functioning in a way we can rely on without thinking. This happens unconsciously, and we are blind to it while it is occurring. This exact situation can occur off the fireground. A classic example of this can be found when captains are asked to act out of class as the BC. What is your checklist for dealing with a critical personnel issue that confronts you without any warning?

Having a checklist for wicked personnel issues is as important as having one for the fireground. Before you can begin to assess the scope and breadth of the issue, consider the following:

1. Do I need to take the company out of service? If so, how do I do that, what is my authority, and how do I ensure service to the public?

2. Do I need to send anyone home? Do I have that authority? What kind of leave will they be placed on? Can I compel them to use their own leave and, if so, what type?

3. Should I allow them to drive themselves? Are they safe to be alone? Are they at risk for harming themselves or others?

4. Who can help me navigate this situation? Never go it alone.

The time to figure out that you are going to face a personnel Mayday event is not five seconds after it occurs—by then it is far too late. Holding the title of “officer” requires a lot more than mashing the foot pedal on the “Q” and talking on the radio. Instead, mental war-game this scenario (talk it out with other officers of the same/higher ranks), and develop a plan to prevent it from happening without destroying the esprit de corps of your company and without abridging the first amendment rights of your members. Once you figure this one out, I have plenty more where this one came from.