Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Air Force unit assists in boater, pilot rescues

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE — When a boat or aircraft is in distress, a tenant unit at Tyndall Air Force Base can help with search and rescue efforts.

The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC), which falls under the umbrella of the First Air Force (AFNORTH), helps agencies across the country search for stranded boaters and pilots using distress beacons, which activate after stressful g-forces or other adverse conditions. The beacon pings a satellite, which goes through several systems before sending a signal to a mission control center that alerts the AFRCC.

If that signal falls within AFNORTH’S jurisdiction, which includes most of North America, the Tyndall unit can coordinate with regional first responders or send military aircraft to help save a life.

“If it’s on land or the 49 continental states, it comes to us,” said AFRCC Assistant Director of Operations Sarah Hedrick. “We can also support the Coast Guard with rescue operations.”

The AFRCC has individual agreements with each state about when and how it can help so the federal government doesn’t step on the toes of state efforts. Generally, the center only helps if requested or permitted.

Their specialty, Hedrick said, is helping outdoor travelers who get stranded on mountains or in caves, which AFRCC calls “confined space and high angle” rescues. Hedrick recalled one instance when the unit helped an Idaho couple whose small aircraft had crashed into the side of a mountain. The AFRCC tracked them down through a personal locator beacon and called the Idaho Transportation Department.

“They sent their police aircraft there,” Hedrick said. “That was an interesting way to take our office’s capabilities and combine it with law enforcement there.”

Some of the forensic tools the AFRCC uses include infrared tracking, radar and cellphone data analysis. About 20 people work for the unit. On Wednesday, several of them kept busy on the operations floor.

“I find it very rewarding to work to make sure people get the help they need,” Tech Sgt. Jacquelyne Huie said from her computer. “If people get stuck on a mountain in Colorado, we can help.”

Huie has been with AFRCC for almost four years and said in her tenure, the group also has helped rescue people from the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes, the rescued people have called afterward to say thanks.

And as technology makes society ever more interconnected and more people get back to exploring nature, the AFRCC is staying busy. In 2016, the AFRCC worked almost 8,000 incidents — an average of 22 a day — and made 354 saves. Since the unit’s activation in 1974, its members have made more than 16,670 saves.

Hedrick said the unit also is getting more fluke distress calls lately from people testing the beacons, which are quickly picked up because of advancing technology. Still, “This month, I expect to exceed 8,000 incidents” for the year, Hedrick said.

But even when the pace of work gets hectic, Hedrick said she remains grateful for her role in bringing people back from the throes of isolation and danger.

“It’s a pretty incredible feeling,” she said.

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