Connecting The Dots For Firefighter Safety

LUNAR system
A simple fence prop can be used to simulate a ceiling collapse adding weight and pinning firefighters. In this scenario, the firefighter must call a MAYDAY using his left hand. In emergency situations, it’s important that all crew members remember to use the LUNAR system and speak clearly and slowly through the face piece to alert rescuers. When firefighters are trapped or pinned, simple tasks can become almost impossible. (Fire Apparatus Photo by Raul Angulo)

Safety is a component of every training session and a part of every operating manual accompanying every piece of equipment.

Many safety messages start with big letters spelling “WARNING!” And they use words like “Always” and “Never.” Everywhere we turn, someone is talking about safety. We are so inundated and overwhelmed with safety messages that we can’t even hear them anymore.

We need to keep in mind that many of those safety messages originated as a result of a firefighter line-of-duty death or serious injury. Yet, many firefighters continue to ignore their warnings. So how do we improve the safety culture of the fire service? One way is to connect the dots to see how one safety component relates to another and another.

Take three separate training skills – radio communications, LUNAR (more about that in a minute) and an accountability system. These skills for the most part are unrelated, stand-alone topics. Yet, in a sudden catastrophic event, they can quickly link together, automatically, to save the life of downed firefighter. All it takes is connecting the dots during training. Once firefighters see how these skills are connected, they will become critical survival skills not easily forgotten or ignored.

First, let’s talk about radio communications.

Morning portable radio checks happen at shift change all around the country. For volunteer companies, there is usually a weekly check to make sure all the radios are working properly. But very little, if any, attention is given to how a firefighter performs a portable radio check.

The usual method is for two firefighters to grab the radios from their chargers. They turn them on and switch to a simplex channel, so as not to interfere with emergency dispatching, and key the hand microphone. If they are right handed, they’ll key the mike with their right hand, if they’re left handed, they’ll use their left hand. “Portable you from portable me, how do you read?” “Portable you, loud and clear.” Done. The radios get turned off and are placed back into the chargers.

A Challenging Task

It’s easy to make this mundane, but necessary, task challenging by training your crews to use a portable radio the way they would in an emergency. For example, if a right-handed firefighter was involved in a roof collapse where his right hand was pinned by a rafter, he would have to use his left hand to key the mike to call for help. Try it. If you haven’t practiced, you’ll discover this simple maneuver is not as easy as it sounds.

A firefighter emergency is stressful enough. You don’t need the added stress of having to figure out an alternative way to accomplish a simple task like keying a microphone to call for help.

Another component of this drill is transmitting on the radio while wearing a SCBA face piece. It’s easy to speak into a microphone, but not when you’re speaking through an attached, low-pressure demand regulator. Most new face pieces on the market have speaking diaphragms or voice amplifiers built into them, but many fire departments still have the basic face piece unit.

Through The Face Piece

The new units also have illuminated heads-up-display devices using small lights to indicate how much air is left in the SCBA bottle. But even with these technological advances, unless you practice and train your crews to transmit radio messages through the face piece, you are very likely to receive transmissions that are garbled, hard to hear and hard to understand.

Objectives to incorporate into this exercise are:

  • Learning how close to hold the hand mike to the face piece.
  • Determining the best place to hold the mike.
  • Practicing speaking slowly and clearly.
  • Keeping a rhythm and breathing between each sentence.
  • Avoiding the Darth Vader syndrome, where the volume of the exhaled air is louder than your words.

We have all heard the voice of an excited fire officer on the fire ground giving a full radio report only to have everyone listening say: “What was that? Did you understand what he said?”


The same goes for a MAYDAY. If you’re calling a MAYDAY, you have to calm down, speak slowly and clearly through your face piece and give the appropriate information over the radio. This takes practice. When you’re pleading for help and running out of air, the last thing you need to hear from the incident commander (IC) is “Last unit, repeat your message!”


Back to the LUNAR portion of the equation. LUNAR is an acronym used in the National Fire Academy (NFA) curriculum, “Calling the MAYDAY,” which I helped develop with a team under the leadership of Dr. Burton Clark, NFA’s research coordinator. It stands for Location, Unit, Name, Assignment, Air status, and Resources needed.

When a firefighter calls for help (a MAYDAY), the IC and the Rapid Intervention Team need as much information as possible. Perhaps you don’t agree with the sequential order of LUNAR. You may feel that giving your name or unit should be the first priority of a MAYDAY transmission. The order of the information is not as critical as the inclusion of essential information in a call for help. LUNAR helps insure the firefighter will remember (under pressure) to provide all the important information. Those on the receiving end, like the RIT, can quickly recognize when a portion of LUNAR is missing and prompt the trapped firefighter for that information.

If you think about it, LUNAR contains all the information a rescue group leader needs to act efficiently and quickly. Rescuers need to know the firefighter’s location. It’s important to know that he’s now in the basement, even though he was assigned to floor one, because the floor gave way.

Knowing the unit helps. If we know the firefighter was on E2, where’s the rest of the crew of E2? We need names. The RIT has to know who they are looking for by name. There are several case studies where RIT teams have rescued disoriented firefighters, believing they were the ones who had called for the MAYDAY when the original member calling for help was still trapped inside the burning structure.

The assignment helps pinpoint the location of the company that was given that task, and the remaining air supply determines the urgency of the rescue. Obviously, a RIT would rather be looking for a lost firefighter who has 20 minutes of air left than one who has only five minutes of air left.

An assessment of resources needed is critical information for a RIT team. If a firefighter’s legs are pinned from a ventilation unit that fell in through the roof, perhaps airbags need to be brought in with the entry team. If the firefighter is wedged between floors from weakened or decayed floor joists, a chain saw will be needed. If fire is threatening the trapped firefighter, the hose line needs to lead the way. If he’s also running out of air, the RIT needs to bring a full air cylinder.


When you are testing your radios or drilling with the companies, include LUNAR as a regular component of your training evolutions. And remember, LUNAR information needs to be transmitted through the SCBA face piece into the radio mike.

Moving on to the third component, accountability systems, the company tag or passport of an accountability system should have the following information: The unit number (E1, L6, etc.), names of the crew members, their assignment (search and rescue, fire attack, exposure protection, etc.) and the time the unit entered the IDLH. This tag should be placed on a status board that indicates the company’s location on the fire ground.

Let’s connect the dots and put these three skills together. Assume you have two separate incidents involving different fire departments.

First, the Acme Fire Department has never realistically trained on how to use a portable radio during emergency conditions. They have no idea what LUNAR stands for and their battalion chiefs are not in the habit of having an accurate and functional accountability system. A firefighter from E3 gets caught in a collapse. If his dominant hand is pinned, he will fumble for his portable radio to call for help. This will delay his call for help.

Finally, he grabs the mike and starts screaming, “MAYDAY. MAYDAY. MAYDAY! I need help. Send help now.” The IC can make out the MAYDAY, but the rest of the transmission is garbled. He asks the firefighter to repeat his message. The firefighter begins to panic because he thinks the IC can’t hear him, so he screams louder; “I need help! Please help me!”

After seconds of agonizing pleas, the radio goes dead and the IC is unable to make contact with the downed firefighter. Who was he? Which unit was he assigned to? What was his assignment and last known position on the fire ground? What was the nature of the emergency? What resources would be needed by the RIT to affect rescue? Most important, what was his location when he called for help?

Looking at another possible scenario with a department that has connected the dots, things go much better.

The incident involves a firefighter on E1 from the Semper Ready Fire Department. He is caught in a ceiling collapse. The firefighter’s right arm is pinned. He uses his left hand to grab the radio microphone like it was second nature. “MAYDAY. MAYDAY. MAYDAY.” He remains calm and waits for an acknowledgement from command. “I’m on the third floor. (breath) E1, Firefighter Dennis. (breath) Assigned to fire attack. (breath) My air is at 80 percent. I estimate 20 minutes of air. (breath) The right side of my body is pinned under a beam. (breath) I’m not injured, but I can’t move. (breath) Need pry bars and chain saw for rescue. Fire in the attic.”

The radio communications are clear and concise. RIT knows what equipment is needed simply by listening. All the IC has to say is, “RIT is being deployed.”

Limited Transmissions

Let’s look a little closer at LUNAR and the accountability system and why it’s critically important. Suppose there was interference with the radio or the firefighter wasn’t fully depressing the transmit button. If the firefighter was only able to transmit “MAYDAY” and his name, an effective accountability or passport system would reveal that Dennis was on E1, operating an attack line on the third floor.

If all Dennis could get out was “MAYDAY, floor 3,” the IC could look at the status board for units assigned to the third floor. By conducting a PAR (personnel accountability report) or a roll call, he could narrow it down to E1. With that information, the IC could deploy the RIT to floor 3. By contacting the captain for a PAR, the captain should be able to figure out that Dennis is in trouble. If Dennis only called out, “MAYDAY, I’m running out of air,” the IC should be able to narrow the possibilities by checking the entry time on the passports to see which units have been inside the longest.

Life-Saving Skills

If all Dennis was able to transmit was “MAYDAY. Fire attack,” the IC would check his status board and see that the only unit assigned to fire attack was E1 on floor 3. RIT can be immediately deployed without any further information. By contacting the captain for a PAR, they would be able to confirm that Dennis was in trouble.

Once firefighters connect the dots to see how the most insignificant tasks can turn into life saving survival skills, they will become sticklers for details and take them seriously. Realistic training prepares firefighters for real life emergencies.

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Angulo is a 28-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6. He is on the Educational Advisory Board for the Fire Department Instructors Conference and is on the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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