Suggested protocol for firefighters when declaring an emergency

A firefighting helicopter pilot has an idea for a standardized protocol for wildland firefighters to use on the radio when they have an emergency and need help. The concept comes from Joseph Berto who was the pilot of the Bell 205A1 working on the Pole Creek Fire who rescued a firefighter from an approaching flame front by allowing him to climb into the helicopter’s water bucket and then extracting him to safety. Mr. Berto received a commendation from the U.S. Forest Service for his actions that day in September, 2012.

After reading about the deaths of the 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill Fire, Mr. Berto had some thoughts about the crucial need for clear, descriptive radio communications when there is a firefighter emergency that requires immediate assistance. Below is his proposal, and following that my initial reaction and his response:


YoLO Proposal:

In an effort to improve the communications between ground resources and command in an emergency situation, and more specifically any time a shelter deployment seems or is imminent, I would propose a new set of protocols and terminology that would be taught to all firefighters during their shelter deployment training.

Similar to a MAYDAY call used by aviators, ground resources will utilize the New Emergency Communication Term:

YoLO, which is an acronym for, Yarnell, Look Out!

An emergency situation is classified as when a firefighter is in a condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance. The spoken word for this distress is “YOLO” and it is pronounces three times.

A YoLO callout is REQUIRED to be used any time a fire shelter deployment is imminent.

The first transmission of the YoLO distress call shall be on the Air-to-Ground frequency in use at the time. If the firefighter is unable to establish communications on the frequency in use, the message shall be repeated on the Guard 168.625 frequency or any other frequency in an effort to establish communication.

The YoLO distress call SHALL have priority over ALL other transmissions. All stations hearing it shall immediately cease any transmissions that will interfere with it and shall listen on the frequency used for the distress call.

An example of the communications for a firefighter:


Included in the distress message should be as many as possible of the flowing elements:

  1. The name station being addressed i.e. Air Attack, Operations Etc.
  2. The identification of the firefighter or crew
  3. The nature of the emergency situation
  4. The intention of the person in command
  5. The present position

YoLO should proceed the message, preferably spoken three times, and if necessary be included at the end of the message as well.

Upon receipt of a YoLO, the station being addressed (including resources on Guard 168.625 if utilized) shall proceed with all speed and commit any resources at his command to render assistance and, if possible, inform the sender of the YoLO of his intentions.

 (end of Mr. Berto’s proposal)


(Bill’s initial reaction)

I generally like the proposal. However, inventing a new term that means “Mayday” is going to have some trouble catching on, and would require a lot of education. I suggest you stick with “Mayday”, a term that is a standard within many structural fire departments. When city firefighters are in trouble or entrapped within a structural fire, they often say “Mayday”. That would be easier than reinventing the wheel.


(Mr. Berto’s response)

I understand what you mean, but think it is VERY important to differentiate between an aviation emergency (which brings a totally different response) and a wildland firefighter emergency. A structure fire does not have the mixed resources so there is no chance of confusion. I think (YoLO) Yarnell Look Out will resonate and really make it clear what type of emergency it is. I also think it honors these and other fallen firefighters in a way that will last forever.

In Canada they use Pan Pan and I have never had any trouble remembering that.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

30 thoughts on “Suggested protocol for firefighters when declaring an emergency”

  1. Even though I commend you in trying to improve safety, the details in the transmission are too detailed for a quick, easy, “I need help” scenario….

    As a pilot, in an emergency situation, would you really be able to copy the coordinates accurately, when they are coming from a person, on the edge of being burned up, as they are attempting to unload their shake and bake bags…

  2. Many countries use pan pan pan when things are really going wrong. As we say in aviation no one down there can help you up here. Think in terms of a fire problem. Who will come to your rescue? Not sure where the word pan came from but understood that it originated from “pan”ic? Many flight recorders have recorded an aircraft in distress using, O’crap or O’s..t Just another thought.

  3. Mayday is the universal distress signal, not just for aviation, but for sea, and structural firefighting as well. Many structural firefighters serve double duty as wildland firefighters, and I believe sticking with common phraseology, would be easier to universally learn, and implement.

    Further more, I absolutely believe that utilizing the reference to Yarnell in every extreme emergency wildland situation, DOES NOT honor the crew. That would be like the FDNY utilizing the phrase “9-11, 9-11, 9-11” as terminology for an eminent building collapse.

    Stick to mayday. That change by itself in the wildland realm, would honor the crew in a big way!

  4. It is an interesting idea. I come from a structural background so the MAYDAY means a lot to me. Once you put together what MAYDAY means, every time you hear it or read it in a LODD report your guts twist up. From what I have been around, EMERGENCY TRAFFIC can mean lots of things. MAYDAY means “I (or we) am/are going to die if I/we don’t get some help NOW.”
    I think it is a good idea to come together on a protocol for wildland firefighting, what ever the protocol ends up being.

  5. As I understand the use of “pan pan” it means my boat is sinking and I am in need of assistance but it is not urgent. “Mayday” is reserved for imminent danger to life with a corresponding urgent need for lifesaving help. Sort of the difference between responding to calls “code two” or “code three”. But if there is a way to get routine emergency traffic to shut up so the real emergency can be dealt with, well, that would be wonderful.

  6. I wonder what other aspects of structural firefighting might translate well into the wild land world.
    When a MAYDAY is called a Rapid Intervention Crew/Team is activated. Basically a group of highly trained and motivated firefighters that do everything in their power to rescue a trapped firefighter. That is their only job. I realize the two diciplines are quite different, but the fundamentals of personnel accountability and situational awareness still apply. If a firefighter is freelancing, the RIC will have a hard time finding them, likewise, if ops or the IC forgot about the firefighter the RIC will not be sure where to start. If the trapped firefighter is lost the job gets even tougher.
    I am rambling but I think this is a good discussion.
    1. Personnel Accountability
    2. No freelancing
    3. Situational Awareness
    In the structure side, the RIC leader is the guy who puts all the pieces of the puzzle together when the above list goes all to hell.
    4. Call the MAYDAY early and often. It is best to call it and get teased for not needing it than don’t call it or call it too late and get burned up.

  7. Mayday is the international RADIO distress call used during life threatening situations by any person in distress, whether on the ground, in a vehicle, aircraft, or boat. It is universally accepted and recognized as a distress call. To introduce a new term to be used by only a single community (wild land firefighters) could cause confusion and poor communication if all the players are not from that community, especially during the transition period. Pan pan is the international radio urgency call, to be used for an urgent situation, less than life threatening. Perhaps Mr. Berto heard Pan Pan in its proper usage and had had not heard any Mayday calls, as a true Mayday, if properly used, is rarely heard.

    Mr Berto’s suggestion does have merit in that wild land fire fighters do need to learn when and how to use Mayday when needed. I’m excerpting a few ideas from this article:
    First, firefighters need to recognize when that are in a Mayday situation, and then use it.
    ■ Announce MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY.
    ■ Give LUNAR: L location; U unit number; N name; A assignment; R resources (what do you need?).
    Three recommendations
    ■ Practise calling mayday. You must practise it if you expect it to work when you need it.
    ■ Include mayday calling in all training where firefighters are put into simulated IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) conditions.
    At a minimum, in initial training and throughout their service, firefighters need to practise calling.
    Our bodies and minds need to be shocked into mayday situations repeatedly so the correct response becomes natural and instantaneous.
    ■ Get communications involved.
    How many times do ICs and dispatchers practice receiving and responding to a mayday call?
    Do you want your real mayday call to be the first time the IC or radio operator gets to test their mayday skills?
    The entire mayday system needs to be trained, drilled and tested. The bottom line regarding the Charleston nine (where nine firefighters died in a South Carolina fire) is summed up in the title of the report: Poor training led to their deaths.

  8. Personally, I think in extremely stressful emergency situations keeping things as simple as possible is the most advisable solution.

    Coming across the radio with something as simple and universally understood as “EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY, EMERGENCY” (this is used in New Zealand).

    It does not take much mental work to figure out when someone comes over the radio with that, that they likely have an emergency of some sort.

  9. I want to thank Bill for allowing me to present this proposal. The purpose is to encourage a dialog, especially with the USFS, regarding implementing this important procedure. I thank everyone who responds with comments.
    Regarding some of them.
    I think a procedure could be implemented using Mayday, the protocol is more important than the callout. However, I think a wildland firefighter in danger deserves a specific emergency call. Mayday could be anything. A YOLO call means only one thing, a firefighter in imminent danger, and demands one immediate practiced response.
    I chose the word YOLO for a number of reasons.
    It is similar to the law enforcement acronym BOLO “Be On Look Out” which is well established.
    It is very distinctive, not a word that has other meanings
    It is very easy to say, repeat and yell.
    It is pronounced like yellow, the color of a caution flag. It also fits in with the “Watch Out” concept in the 10/18’s

    Regarding the distress elements. This is a suggested format and an actual call may be shortened or lengthened as needed. It suggests only the essentials elements of an emergency call. With practice it could be done very quickly. It is far easier, for example, than a fire size up, and I fly with a crew that can recite them very quickly. Ideally a YOLO call should be made well prior to a deployment.

    As for the reference to Yarnell, it was my thought that if this call were necessary, the possible consequences of a terrible situation would be recalled, acknowledging that a fatality is a very real possibility and demanding a call to action. It honors the fallen by showing that we have learned from their lesson and by doing a YOLO callout we have hopefully allowed ourself and other responders enough time to alter the outcome in a positive manner. However if it is an offensive definition, perhaps Yell Out, Look Out or other meaning is more appropriate.

  10. What ever term is used, the willingness and timeliness to use it is paramount. We spend an hour each refresher session practicing with our shelter most of that folding up a practice shelter . We need to re commit to entrapment avoidance and stronger commitment to disengagement from the incident. I do agree clearly indicating an emergency is critical. As an ATGS I endeavor to know where crews are on the fire so.

  11. Agree 100% that we need a universally accepted emergency traffic protocol in the wildland world, but a new term, unique to “our” world is not the best answer. Mayday is pretty universal. Aviation, maritime, municipal fire, and pretty much anyone else knows it means “I’m in imminent danger”. Our municipal FD trains on it regularly, both in transmitting and in receiving mayday calls, and the wildland world should as well. If you’re in a situation that your life is in danger, you’re about to deploy a shelter or think you might have to (which you’ve been told since day one you don’t ever want to do), the last thing you need is to remember a “second language”. You’ll default to what you already know well, so let’s adopt it and make it official and universal. Plus, there’s nothing new to invent. The protocol Carl Buick shares above is widely accepted in the municipal/structural world, and translates directly into the wildland world. With a very large number of folks doing both sides of the fire world, the simpler and more transferable we can make it, the better for all involved. Use what already works.

  12. A lot of good ideas.

    Some thought should be given to the Planning Section writing a plan for responding to an entrapment.

    I know that the FDNY and the Chicago Fire Department both have plans in place and dispatch a large amount of reosurces automatically when a MAYDAY is called. There is no hesitation or wait and see.

  13. I believe that the substance of the proposal is the most important thing. If firefighters have already been trained that a Mayday is conveying a sense of urgency, then perhaps it is the right term. But a Mayday by itself is not sufficient without generating an instant action by the receiving station and others who hear it. Either YOLO or Mayday could work, more important is training in place to assure that the firefighter knows to use it and that they can expect a certain response. The use of a Mayday (or other call) must be REQUIRED any time a shelter deployment is imminent, so that a speedy response protocol by the station receiving the Mayday can be initiated. If anyone has a line to the USFS planning section, perhaps they could forward them a link.

  14. I have heard many calls for help in my 20 plus seasons flying on fires, and some things become obvious.
    1). Don’t call “air attack, division alpha”, and expect a reply……especially if the fire is blowing-up. Do make a call of “deployment, deployment “, or ” burn over, burn over”, or even “heart attack, heart attack” and then your identifier.
    This call will ensure radio silence, priority, and get immediate response from air resources. A few helicopters usually know your location and can start to lead other resources in, even if Air Attack is busy or didn’t hear your call.
    2). Make your call short and clear. A new term like yolo may be well intended, but still needs further explanation. The ‘blind’ calls listed above tell responders an enormous amount about what you need…even more so than “emergency, emergency”, or even “mayday, mayday”.
    3). In a critical situation, if you have a helicopter near you, call it directly and get help NOW. If you don’t have time to call Air Attack, then don’t. This is an occasion where you are allowed to throw away the ‘book’ to save your life.
    4). Discuss and practice this stuff with your crew regularly……before they need it. This will ensure they will make a clear call and get help in the unthinkable moments that may really matter.

  15. For requesting radio silence, mariners and others have an international call of Seelonce (silence; may be Seelonce Mayday or Seelonce Distress; canceled by Seelonce Fini “fee-nee” or partially by Prudonce); for medical help PAN-PAN could be appended with MEDICO (somewhat unofficially); for important safety/security updates Securite (say koo ree tay), all repeated three times. Just don’t try CQD; that pretty much went out with the Titanic.

  16. Hi Guys, long time reader, first time poster.

    I live down in Sydney, Australia and volunteer with the NSW Rural Fire Service. The NSW RFS has particular standard operating procedures in relation to radio communications, including over run situations.

    In an overrun, the call would be:

    EMERGENCY EMERGENCY EMERGENCY, truck callsign, aviation number, location, incident type (eg over run, heart attack), crew number, crew action.

    All other radio messages are prioritised too by colour codes, eg units with standard/low priority messages are denoted by their callsign and “yellow”, eg “Firecom, Sydney 1 Alpha Yellow”. During a response or priority situation, messages are denoted with their call sign and blue, ie “Firecom, Sydney 1 Alpha Blue, Responding”. Urgent action or priority messages are coded red. I’n not sure if a similiar message priority system is in use stateside for wildfires. Needless to say, blue trumps yellow, and red trumps blue messages.

  17. Back a few years ago, when the G8 Summit was held at Kannanaskis, Alberta we were in the area of influence, thus under the jurisdiction of the armed forces protecting the dignitaries. Every employee had to have a criminal records check, then issued a picture ID, even though we were 200 miles away……

    The “code word” of this gathering was “Brass Monkey”… If that happened on the radio everyone had to stop working, all aircraft had to land asap, and no one could re-engage til we heard “Brass Monkey Rescinded”….

  18. Every IMT has toiled with the incident within incident (IWI) terminology, and how an emergency notification is to be handled. The team I am assigned has set as protocol that all emergency traffic occur on command frequency, and tactical traffic remain on tacs until end of emergency traffic is declared.

    This works well at times, but I’ve learned to monitor command, a-g, and air guard, as emergency traffic can and will occur on all three. Command nets have dead spots, as do tacs, so workaround a always need to be identified.

    Terms that were utilized were “Medical emergency,”, “emergency medical transport,” and “Non-emergent medical notification and/or transport.” These terms set the tone of response for overhead and line personnel according to identified protocols.

    The issue of any other emergencies really hasn’t been identified through procedure. The “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” is the most widely used terminology and immediately sets a tone of urgency to the response.

    Another post discussed “LUNAR”. This is used for rapid intervention teams to get the key information for the rescue to start. A minor change for Wildland RIT would be:
    L- Location
    U – Unit Identifier for IWI point of contact and IWI IC
    N – Nearest Safe Access point
    A – Assignment / Activity
    R – Resource needs
    S – Situation / Status

    Wildland Firefighters / fixed wing aircraft should also be trained on the emergency egress signal of three successive horn blasts of 3 seconds each (or pilot reving engines three times) to signal evacuation to safety zones or impending entrapment. Of course this should always be preceeded/followed by radio traffic giving information for the emergency egress signal.

    As another poster noted, I’ve heard many an emergency notification. Most don’t convey the sense of urgency, or contain all necessary information for the IWI response. Some overstate the urgency, but I’d rather have this than not respond appropriately.

    The set-up for frequencies should be standard for every incident. Such as Air Guard is channel 16 for a reason, command nets should also be easily found. Why is Air Guard programmed into channel 16? It’s “Left for Life”. In a situation which rapid communication is necessary, simply turning the channel knob all the way left (Ch. 16) gets you Air Guard. The frequency everyone should be monitoring on the incident. Go all the way right (Ch. 1), and that should land on command. Sometimes, there are multiple command frequencies with different repeaters if a link system can’t be established. Know your comm plan. I know some COML set up ICS205’s with Tacs on the channels which they are labeled. I understand this, but I feel it’s a poor practice for operational efficiency, at the cost of simplicity during duress.

    It is key that during an IWI notification and coordination that operational, logistical, and planning continuity be maintained. In a rapidly degrading situation such as Yarnell, disengagement and regroup/recovery needs to be signaled early. It’s obvious that personnel were overwhelmed, but meaningfully engaged. We need to be mindfully engaged.

    As this discussion unfolds, I would hope we could discuss what also would comprise a wildland RIT assignment. What qualifications should personnel have? What resources should be assigned? ETC.

    1. Perhaps one problem with the Granite Mountain crew was that Mr. Marsh as I understand his radio traffic sounded very calm and in control as he was announcing that his crew was deploying. If people were distracted with other radio traffic, they might not have realized that mixed in with all the routine stuff on multiple channels, there was on station announcing a genuine emergency.

      1. What Jim is saying is that a calm voice announcing a deployment was missed in the fog of war. A calm voice announcing “MAYDAY…MAYDAY…MAYDAY” would have cut through it like a hot knife through butter. I am retired from Coast Guard Search and Rescue and have listened to several thousand hours of shipping/boating traffic on various scanned channels ad nauseum; but whenever I heard the words Mayday…it was like a shock from and AED, electrifying me into action.

    2. I posted earlier about the RIC/RIT concept, and have been thinking about it ever since. I am not sure how to put it together however. A wildland RIT may not be able to access areas of the fire fast enough to extract a crew. I believe the rapid intervention concept might have some worth prior to a emergency, with personnel accountability being the primary focus. What about an accountability officer being assigned to each division? At a structure fire an officer is sometimes assigned to work with the IC to put names on the accountability board, a map designed to account for everyone’s location, rehab, in the hot zone ect. Could someone keep track of personnel, weather, fire behavior and get personnel out of a situation before it becomes an emergency?

  19. Long ago (early 1980s) and far away (SoCal) a system was introduced to simplify communications on wildfires: it was called the Incident Command System (ICS). Fire trucks, both wildland and structural, are called “engines”; airplanes that drop stuff from the sky are caled “tankers”; and the old “10 Code” is abolished and we use “clear text”. Does anyone out there on fires not know that when some one says “Mayday” on their radio that it indicates an emergency?
    “YOLO” is current and politically “in”: should we change when the next big burnover fatality occurs? Why not go back to “PuLOL” for Pulaski and the 1910 event? How about Rattlesnake, Loop, the Butte entrapments, South Canyon, etc?
    Does everyone get the message, including small volunteer departments? What about when te Canadians come to “visit”? And if there is no Air Attack aor ASM on the fire?
    Just some thoughts from an old timer!

  20. “CLEAR THIS CHANNEL FOR EMERGENCY TRAFFIC!” Is the standard protocol. Part of the problem is that folks outside of wildlland fire ( As primary job description) Begin trying to reinvent the wheel with protocols used in their respective specialties.

    1. One of the problems is there is no “standard protocol” that reaches beyond a local area.

      And at Wildfire Today we welcome input from all walks of life, no matter your job description. We appreciate thinking outside the box.

      1. My intent was not to insult at all. I’ve just thought about through the years, regardless of the region I’ve worked in, this was pretty standard for most emergencies during operational periods. I can’t think of a time when there was a SOF assigned and it was not part of the IAP directions as to how to get the attention of those listening and engaged regardless of the current operational tempo. My tone is partially if not fully representative of the anger of having 19 folks killed. I fully embrace thinking outside of the box. But fear at times that with too many layers and interpretations come confusion and loss.

  21. MAYDAY!.. MAYDAY!..MADAY!.. Everyone in ear shot knows something is wrong! Automatically you listen for more information…There is no mistaking that something has gone wrong and someone needs help!

Comments are closed.