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AFRCC saves lives daily, quietly

Maj. Bret Cove, Air Force Rescue Coordination Center Assistant Director of Operations, listens as Tech. Sgt. Brittany Vetter, AFRCC Operations Flight NCO in Charge, reviews the day’s notifications during a shift change in the AFRCC operations room. (Photo by Mary McHale)

Maj. Bret Cove, Air Force Rescue Coordination Center Assistant Director of Operations, listens as Tech. Sgt. Brittany Vetter, AFRCC Operations Flight NCO in Charge, reviews the day’s notifications during a shift change in the AFRCC operations room. (Photo by Mary McHale)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Sometimes, the results of their efforts make international headlines, but with minimal focus on their life-saving coordination behind the scenes.

Every day of the week, around the clock, the controller staff of the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) work to connect calamity with calm, by helping ensure Search and Rescue (SAR) assets are coordinated for response to a distress call in the contiguous 48 states.

Notification to the center may occur through a variety of means whether it’s a phone call or a hit from a locator beacon to initiate SAR, a medical evacuation/patient transfer mission or a mercy (blood and/or organ transport) or precautionary mission.

“No matter how it’s received, we treat each notification as a distress call until we verify it’s otherwise or reaches a conclusion,” said Lt. Col. Gene Manner, AFRCC director of operations. “So it works out that of the 100 percent initially treated as distress, approximately 10 percent get assigned a mission number, but every incident is catalogued for reference purposes.”

A 16-year combat SAR veteran as an HC-130 pilot, Manner has been involved with civil SAR now for approximately 11 months. He said his biggest challenges are manning levels coupled with the ever-evolving technology that often increases the already significant amount of data the staff processes on a daily basis. He said currently, the AFRCC is averaging saving a life a day.

There are memorandums of understanding with each state to ensure a smooth process is in place when AFRCC asks for assistance.
According to Manner, mission assignments often involve the Civil Air Patrol-U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, providing AFRCC controllers an invaluable resource. CAP aircraft can use forward-looking infrared radar while ground-based teams proved radar cell phone forensics and radar forensics capabilities to help save lives.

“No matter how long you’ve been doing this business or how you go about it, every mission is unique,” he said. “Every day, I learn something new. But the point is, if you think you’re in distress, never hesitate to make the call.”

He said incident calls tend to increase during the summer months as more people enjoy outdoor-related activities that may present potential hazards. Already in June, his staff had one day where they received notifications of 30 incidents in a span of six hours.

Tech. Sgt. Brittany Vetter, AFRCC operations flight NCO in charge, has been receiving such notifications at the AFRCC the past three years.

“I love it, it’s a new experience every day,” she said. “I get a lot of job satisfaction from it and I go home knowing I have affected someone’s life in a positive way.”