Rescue coordination center answers calls for help

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Amy Robinson
  • 1st Fighter Wing Public Affairs
A private aircraft crashes and the pilot is injured. Unable to call for help, the pilot is still found and rescued. The rescue may be largely credited to members of the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center here.

The AFRCC belongs to Air Combat Command's Air Operations Squadron.

"(The mission) is to coordinate federal assets in order to save lives across the United States for military and civilians alike," said Capt. Heather Dunlap, the chief of current operations at the center.

There are 41 active-duty and Reserve servicemembers who keep the AFRCC operating around the clock. Besides coordinating federal search and rescue activities for the 48 contiguous states, the center also provides search and rescue assistance to Mexico and Canada.

SAR missions are initiated for several different reasons, including lost hunters or hikers, overdue aircraft or contact with emergency locator transmitters.

"This time of year, because it's hunting season, it's not unusual to get two to three callers a day saying a husband, brother or sister didn't return from the hunting trip last night," said Dunlap.

Although the center receives most calls from local authorities, the center staff receives many phone calls directly from the family member or friend of the missing person, Dunlap said

"It definitely takes a special kind of person to do this job," she said. "You're dealing with family members and people out there who are feeling the stress of a person or a loved one missing and you have to remain calm."

Once the coordination center receives the call, there is a checklist workers must follow to see if they are able to provide assistance. Questions such as, "Is there a threat to life, limb or eyesight?" help in the decision-making process.

Although people at the center must follow the checklist, Dunlap said there is much more to handling a potential SAR situation.

"You have to be able to convey to them (family members) that we're doing everything we can and keep them calm. For them, it's probably the hardest moment in their life," she said.

If the center is able to provide assistance, the staff coordinates with local, state and federal officials to determine the amount of response necessary.

The search and rescue team may include members of the Civil Air Patrol, Coast Guard or other Department of Defense resources. Once the mission is activated, the coordination center keeps in close contact with all aspects of the rescue efforts.

If the center staff is unable to initiate a mission, they will do everything they can to help people find the proper agency that can assist them.

Besides searches for missing people, the center is also responsible for monitoring signals transmitted by emergency locator transmitters, or ELTs, which are found on many aircraft.

An international agreement requires the center to follow up on or research any ELT signals that are picked up by satellites throughout the United States.

"Once those (ELT) images appear, we're obligated to start researching and find out if they're really an aircraft downed with somebody needing assistance, or if it's an accidental activation, where somebody may have removed the device," Dunlap said.

The center receives between 10 to 20 ELT signals a day, Dunlap said. These make up the majority of the workload for the center. During the summer, the number of ELT signals increases because of the number of planes flying.

Although 97 percent of the ELT activations are non-distress, they must all be taken seriously, said Airman 1st Class Simorrah Brown, a controller and scheduler with the coordination center.

Dunlap said the rewards of working at the control center are worth the long hours.

"If I was able to have even a small part in saving someone's life, I can go home at the end of a 12-hour shift and feel that it's OK, I did my job, I did it well and I feel good about it," she said. (Courtesy of ACC News Service)