AFRCC controllers perform a life or death mission

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

These things we do, so others may live,” reads a statement displayed on the door of the First Air Force’s Air Force Rescue Coordination Center operations floor at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. It’s a statement to reaffirm the commitment of the Airmen assigned to the AFRCC to saving lives.

The AFRCC is operated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. As the United States’ inland search and rescue coordinator, it serves as the single agency responsible for coordinating on-land SAR activities in the 48 contiguous United States, Mexico and Canada. The AFRCC has direct access to the Federal Aviation Administration’s alerting system and the U.S. Mission Control Center.

Any time a distress beacon is activated, the AFRCC receives an alert. Whether it comes from a personal, aircraft, or boating device, the notification comes through and the team gets to work.

“When a beacon comes in, if it’s registered, we will try to reach out to the person it belongs to or the emergency contact information listed on the registered profile,” said Master Sgt. Christina Combes, AFRCC superintendent. “If it’s not registered, we will reach out to the state emergency management office, who then reaches out to the specific county law enforcement and they begin an investigation.”

Although not every alert they receive is always life threatening, the AFRCC responds to every scenario with a high level of professionalism and thoroughness.

“The majority of the beacons we receive are improper testing,” said Combs. She explained that when a beacon goes off and is located on or near an airfield, the staff will contact the airfield to ensure the pilot is safe and accounted for. However, many distress beacons they receive are for just that - distress.

In 2020, mission activity consisted of 10,849 incidents that were coordinated through the AFRCC. Of those incidents, 762 turned into missions and 349 lives were saved.

Although the AFRCC is a military organization, they work closely with local first responders wherever there is an emergency. If those departments or agencies are out of options or lack capabilities, they put out a request to nearby military units for their support.

“A lot of times, when states call us asking for an aviation asset or federal resources, they’ve already exhausted all of their state and local assets,” said Combs. “Say the emergency is in Colorado, on a 14,000 foot peak and someone’s broken a foot. We’ll reach out to each of the branches and whoever is the closest most capable asset based on the location may respond, in this case, the U.S. Army’s High Altitude Training Squadron.”

Though the mission of the AFRCC is to help coordinate SAR efforts, there are multiple instances when the distress beacons, while giving off correct location information, are too late.

Tech. Sgt. Bret Talbott, AFRCC noncommissioned officer in charge of operations, explained one of the most difficult parts of the job is having to speak to family members who are desperately looking for their loved ones and knowing the outcome is the worst case scenario. Locating missing persons, he said, comes with many emotional responses.

The 27 Airmen and civilians assigned to the AFRCC mission work selflessly around the clock to bring comfort and closure to families around the country.

“The mission our Airmen do on a daily basis never ceases to amaze me,” said Lt. Col. Matt Mustain, AFRCC commander. “Their tireless professionalism and dedication to the mission of rescuing and serving civilians is rewarding, to say the least. They must think quickly, calmly and get the right resource to the right place in minimum time to help save a life. Knowing that you made a life-changing difference for someone, for someone’s family, on a daily basis is the best part of our job. I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

The dedication and expertise of these Airmen could mean the difference between life and death and the 325th Fighter Wing is proud to host a unit so dedicated to serving their country.