… an internationally recognised radio distress signal used by many professions including seafarers, aviators and firefighters who are in a life-threatening situation or the situation they are in could become life-threatening. It is a signal no one wants to hear on the radio, and one that no firefighter ever wants to make. 

There were 135 on-duty firefighter deaths in the USA in 2021. Sixty-five were due to covid but 40% of the non-covid deaths and the largest share of fatalities occurred while firefighters were operating at fires or explosions – 28 firefighters lost their lives.

In England alone between 2004/05 to 2013/14 there were 13 firefighter deaths and one fire technician death but there have been no operational fire deaths of a firefighter in the UK since 2016 according to the UK Home Office Fire statistics data tables.

Following the tragic death of fire captain Joshua Laird in Frederick County, Maryland, USA in August 2021, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP) has put together an important advisory regarding training on the Portable Radio Emergency Alert Button (EAB).

It’s not enough to know that the little red button… the Portable Radio Emergency Alert Button (EAB) is there. It is also vital to understand why it’s there, and what its job is. The EAB, when properly utilised, can help rapid intervention crews quickly gain the necessary information to rescue a trapped firefighter. 

The NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (FFFIPP) recommends fire departments and municipalities ensure all firefighters and dispatchers: 

  • Understand what the EAB is and how it functions when activated 
  • Know the specific EAB functions present on their portable radio and their communication system capabilities 
  • Know that the EAB prioritises transmissions for the portable radio when activated 
  • Are proficient in Mayday standard operating procedures, guidelines, and training that involve the EAB function

The Advisory notice stresses the importance of understanding and training on the Portable Radio Emergency Alert Button (EAB) during a Mayday using a system of Q&A to address common queries:

What are your communications centre system features and portable radio EAB capabilities? 

Ensure that when your EAB is activated, your radio’s ability to transmit over others is prioritised in the radio system and the user will receive highest transmitting priority over other users. Training with your communications division will also help firefighters understand their specific communications system features and portable radio EAB capabilities. Radios operating on a trunked radio system will receive priority access when the EAB is activated as a system design feature. Radios operating on a conventional or simplex channel may only receive priority access if the other users on the channel recognise the EAB activation and maintain strict radio discipline. 

How is the EAB activated? 

The EAB is activated by pressing either button for at least one second but no more than three seconds. Once activated, information is transmitted in priority mode until the EAB is reset. 

What can fire departments do to ensure firefighters understand the proper use of the EAB and how it interacts with the communications centre? 

Fire departments should conduct routine training in full personal protective equipment, so all users are proficient with their radios and Mayday procedures. Departments should partner with their communications centre when conducting training to understand each other’s role during a Mayday. 

Can a portable radio’s EAB be activated remotely in the event a firefighter cannot activate their EAB? 

Some communication centres may be able to remotely activate an EAB from the dispatch console or from a command centres/post in the event a firefighter cannot reach or activate their EAB. Firefighters and communication centres should understand this capability and use it as needed. 

Did you know that your portable radio may have additional features? 

Certain radios can be remotely ‘pinged’ to emit a sound that may provide a general location of a trapped firefighter. Some EAB options include a hot mic feature that provides open mic for a pre-programed amount of time and a trapped firefighter could speak without using their hands. Certain radios may also be able to emit an audible sound (similar to PASS device) to assist in locating a trapped or lost firefighter. 

Where can fire departments find information on the features of portable radios and communications centre systems?

The manufacturer’s instruction manual provides information on the specific capabilities of the system. NFPA 1802, 2021 edition, includes information on portable radios. NFPA 1225, Standard for Emergency Services Communications, 2022 edition, includes information on radio system features.

To meet nationally recognised NFPA standards as they relate to incident communications, department policies and procedures should follow specific criteria. For example, NFPA 1500: Standard on Fire Department Occupational, Safety, Health, and Wellness Program states that: “The fire department shall establish and ensure the maintenance of a fire dispatch and incident communication system that meets the requirements of NFPA 1561 and NFPA 1221.” It also states that all personnel operating in a hot or warm zone shall be equipped with a portable radio, fire department procedures shall provide direction in the use of clear text radio messages, and “emergency traffic” shall be used as a designator to clear radio traffic for an emergency affecting the incident. Additionally, it covers the mandatory use of the term “mayday” to signify that a firefighter needs immediate assistance and the use of an incident ‘time clock’ by a communication centre to identify the time on scene. 

Further, NFPA 1561: Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety identifies the need for the procedures to include standard protocols and terminology, clear text, plain language and a standard method to give priority to emergency messages, such as urgent and mayday messages. 

It has never been more critical to reduce injuries and fatalities of those responding to emergencies. NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety, offers broad criteria for the structure and procedures of these operations for optimal protection of personnel.

The standard provides the framework for emergency service organizations implementing the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Provisions cover everything from highway accidents and emergency medical service (EMS) calls to structure and aircraft fires and active shooter scenes. NFPA 1561 applies to operations performed by an emergency services organization (ESO) at the scene of an incident and are relevant to both single agency systems and multi-agency EMS and larger situations.

The 2020 edition offers the latest on managing emergency operations within an effective incident management system and performance criteria for components of a system of command that contributes toward safety and health objectives.

NFPA 1516 is an indispensable resource for training to keep emergency response personnel better protected on the scene of an incident. The document is updated to reflect the most current information and best practices in incident managements.

Notable changes include:

  • New requirements for positional best colours added to the mandatory section of the standard to make incident management team members universally identifiable based on the colour of vest they don for their assigned role 
  • Added language to prevent the ‘incident within an incident’ practice of managing emergencies or ‘Maydays’ at large-scale incidents to help ensure incident commanders stay in control of the entire incident and not become overly committed to the emergency by assigning a supervisor or rapid intervention group to the emergency
  • Completely revised Annex C to reflect the latest “Planning P” diagram and the best practices for creating an incident action plan

Report: NFPA’s “Firefighter Fatalities in the US in 2021”

Author: Rita F. Fahy and Jay T. Petrillo

Issued: August 2022 

UK Home Office Fire statistics data tables

The Importance of Understanding and Training on the Portable Radio Emergency Alert Button (EAB) during a Mayday. 

DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2023-100 | October 2022 DOI:

NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System and Command Safety.