Presentation on the Joint Rescue Coordination Center by Major Kevin Howe, January 6, 2023
There are people out there we seldom think about. They work quietly in the background, unseen, 24/7, no matter the weather. They are there to save lives: the lives of passengers in crashed or missing aircraft; persons on floundering marine vessels; lost or injured hikers; or critically-ill patients who live in remote communities.
Search and rescue (SAR) crews function anonymously. They respond to the late-night, alerting phone call more frequently than we might expect. We sleep, completely unaware of the flurry of activity around the floodlit hangar on the otherwise silent, darkened, military base. To our untrained eye, the scene would appear frenetic. Two, sometimes three Rescue Specialists store their parachutes, medical kits, air-droppable supplies, two-way radios and 2-million candle-watt flares (with mini-chutes attached) on the aircraft. Maintenance personnel open the large hangar doors, while others hook up the tow bar to the aircraft nose-wheel. The Flight Engineer completes the walk-around as the pilots cross the tarmac, their contour maps, flight navigation charts and instrument approach charts folded and ready.
The engines spool up at 2:12AM. “Rescue 807” (the aircraft call sign) taxis at 2:15AM. The SAR bird is airborne at 02:19. Another mission is underway. The pilot working the radios checks-in with the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) on a discreet frequency.
The speaker for our first meeting of 2023 was Major Kevin Howe, the Officer-in-Charge of the Victoria JRCC. He leads a small unit of specialist staff who collectively coordinate SAR activity in the Victoria Search and Rescue Region. He speaks with passion and commitment, the result of having flown numerous SAR missions with 413 Squadron on the east coast. For the past five years he has led the Victoria JRCC.
The geographic area under his jurisdiction is the smallest JRCC of the three in Canada. But the changeable weather is harsh and the mountainous terrain unforgiving – sometimes deadly. Additionally, there are numerous marine events that occur in Canadian waters between Alaska and the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Consequently, there are more SAR missions tasked by the Victoria JRCC than either of the other two Centers.
The Victoria JRCC is first notified of a possible incident through any number of sources. Some are formal (e.g., NAV CANADA’s air traffic services, flying or yachting clubs, aviation or marine commercial operators). Others are informal (worried friends or family members, distraught witnesses). When first contacted, staff members work as investigators, making phone calls and following leads, ever hopeful that the aircraft or vessel will be located safe and sound. Meanwhile, other JRCC staff determine which resource might be most appropriate if they need to initiate a search. In addition to Canadian SAR-dedicated RCAF and Coast Guard resources, they may turn to the US Coast Guard, Canadian private pilots registered with CASARA (Canadian Aviation Search and Rescue Association), local ground search groups, even commercial air and marine operators.
When a search is started, JRCC is the primary coordinator and communicator. They brief the marine or aviation SAR crews, then contact organizations and companies to support the search operation. They may request the use of Department of Fisheries aircraft. They almost certainly will contact RCAF or Coast Guard headquarters, particularly if the event has potential for being ‘high profile’. They may need to contact next-of-kin. And, as always in cases where life-and-death decisions are made in a fluid, ever-changing environment, they log their decisions and activities. Then they plan next steps.
It is a thrilling, if exhausting experience. The morning Major Howe spoke to us he had only managed 3-hours sleep before being awakened at 1:30AM. The JRCC needed to launch the stand-by Cormorant helicopter to a remote settlement to airlift a critically-ill, 4-month-old child.
It was just another example of the many stories that take place quietly behind the scenes – one that would have gone unknown but for the timing of his presentation.