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AFRCC eases into 2019 after ‘record’ 2018

  • Published
  • By Tom Saunders
  • Air Forces Northern

After a year in which the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center here managed a record number of incidents leading to a record high number of saves during 2018, stats were slightly down in January 2019 from where they were a year ago. 

The 529 incidents through the first few weeks of January 2019 are less than the 547 incidents in January 2018 to date. However, Lt. Col. Evan Gardner, AFRCC commander, said it’s early in the year.  That averages to about one fewer per day, so some days have provided a breather while some days have surpassed 40 incidents.

“We appreciate the decrease in activity this January, but we’re also very aware that things can pick up quickly,” Gardner said. “For the past several years, we’ve seen a steady increase in incidents and saves overall, with peaks and valleys of activity. The increased activity in 2018 kept us busy, AFRCC Airmen met the challenge including several days last year of 49 incidents when the average is around 30.”

In 2018, the AFRCC recorded a record high 10,469 incidents resulting in 933 SAR missions and a record 550 saves.  In 2017, the AFRCC recorded 9,762 incidents resulting in 997 SAR missions and 323 saves.  

According to TSgt. Christopher Cernigliaro, a SAR controller who arrived here in July 2016, the 2018 year can be best described as a rollercoaster.

“Just like a rollercoaster, the AFRCC enjoyed gentle climbs up where we get the opportunity to look at and enjoy our many success stories. Other times, the AFRCC is on an adrenaline-fueled, fast-paced ride during chaotic and record breaking high-volume incident day,” Cernigliaro said. “Or the AFRCC could get thrown through a loop, in the case of Hurricane Michael, and we hold on tight as we watch our lives get turned upside down in a matter of hours.”

Gardner attributed the recent years of increased AFRCC SAR activity to a number of factors, such as increased outreach to civil authorities, people using personal locator beacons and training, and better use of cell phone forensics.

“You can say we’ve been very successful in collaborating with our civil partners to let them know we’re here to help, and for also spreading the word about the life-saving benefits of planning for outdoor activities and for using personal locator beacons,” Gardner said.

One of the newer members of AFRCC, 1st Lt. Chelsea Atkinson, who arrived here in July 2018 to fill the roles of Training Flight commander and SAR controller, said adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts can do several things to enjoy the outdoors safely.

“Always tell someone responsible what your plan is before you head out. Be specific and stick to the plan, or contact them if you change your plan,” Atkinson said. “Most of our missions are initiated by family members reporting a person overdue or missing, and it makes a huge difference when they can provide information to SAR forces. Carry an active, fully-charged cell phone and invest in a personal locator beacon (PLB) as a last resort.”

Cernigliaro added, “A large quantity of our rescues occur because individuals are overconfident in their abilities, or they underestimate the elements and the effects of nature, which places them in difficult situations that they are unprepared for.”

Due to increasing op tempo, AFRCC leadership has had to find innovative solutions to manage busy schedules and ensure adequate controllers are available to meet the busy seasonal periods. AFRCC has an unprecedented number of temporary controllers in training, to include Air National Guard members from Meridian, Miss., and the 337th Air Control Squadron here.

“Our challenge, from a leadership perspective, is to find ways to effectively accomplish the mission while ensuring the health and morale our AFRCC Airmen,” Gardner said. “We are now starting to realize a more permanent long-term solution manpower-wise to the increasing mission.  Creative scheduling and temporary duty Airmen have gotten us through a lot of busy times. But we’re now on the path to sourcing a team sized for sustainability versus survivability.”

One of the attributes of AFRCC that has enabled the team to be so successful, according to Gardner, is Wingmanship.

“This is a remarkable team of Airmen. It’s a small team focused so much on mission and very committed to each other,” Gardner said. “Interactions among officers and enlisted, NCOs and Airmen is focused on mentoring, teaching, sharing and caring. I’m very proud of this team.”  

Echoing Gardner’s thoughts, Cernigliaro said, “The AFRCC is definitely a prime example of the ‘One Team, One Fight’ concept. Because we are such a small unit, we have a unique opportunity to learn about, and take care of, each other that a large squadron does not. Since controllers work together in a very small environment, they are able to talk and further connect with the people they work with most frequently.”

On behalf of the United States' inland search and rescue coordinator, the commander USNORTHCOM, the AFRCC serves as the single agency responsible for coordinating airborne and on-land federal support of SAR activities in the 48 contiguous United States. Additionally, the AFRCC maintains close contact Mexico and Canada for mutual support of civil SAR across North America. 

The AFRCC operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The center directly ties in to the Federal Aviation Administration's alerting system and the U.S. Mission Control Center. In addition to the Search and Rescue Satellite Aided Tracking information, the AFRCC computer system contains resource files that list federal and state organizations, which can conduct or assist in SAR efforts throughout North America. 

“We are in the life saving business, and we take that very seriously,” Gardner said. “These Airmen realize the importance of their no-fail mission and commit themselves to it every day.”