Overcoming the tyranny of time and distance: Major Air Disaster SAREX 2013

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Article / November 15, 2013

By: Capt Trevor Reid

Canada and the United States share not only a border, but a great deal of commonality when it comes to operating in our arctic region,” said Master Warrant Officer Greg Smit, Search and Rescue Technician (SAR Tech) with Canadian Joint Operations Command.  “With the opening of the Northwest Passage and increased air travel in the North, we must collaborate to respond quickly and effectively to an incident in the Arctic.

With this in mind, approximately 100 Canadian Armed Forces members joined their American SAR counterparts in the Alaska Air National Guard (AKANG), United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Coast Guard (USCG) to take part in the Arctic Major Air Disaster (MAJAID) Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREX) from 28 October to 2 November, 2013. The exercise served to test the collective response to a simulated airliner crash in the quickly changing and hostile arctic climate of North America.

Conducted within a remote training area near Fort Greely, Alaska, members of the United States Army played the role of survivors of an airliner that had crashed near the Alaska/Yukon border in bad weather.  As would happen in a real-world situation, both Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Victoria and the Alaska Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) worked together to launch a variety of aircraft to the scene, initially staged from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, near Anchorage.

First to arrive at the scene of the crash were Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) SAR Techs, USAF Para-rescuers (PJs) and Canadian Army soldiers who parachuted in and began triaging and treating the simulated casualties. Additionally, aircraft parachuted sustainment equipment and supplies, and remained at the scene, acting as airborne commanders, while circling overhead.

Major Matthew Harper, an HH-60 helicopter pilot with the 210th Rescue Squadron, AKANG, served as the SAR Duty Officer during the exercise. “The RCC, located at Elmendorf, received a call from JRCC Victoria, saying there was a plane crash near the border.  The Duty Officer then called me with a synopsis and a plan to rescue the casualties; I coordinated the response,” said Maj Harper. “At that point, I tasked the crews to save lives.

There is a ‘tyranny of time and distance’ in arctic SAR,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Westerland, director of the Alaska RCC, speaking to the vast expanses which aircraft SAR crews must cover in order to reach a crash. “We have a challenge to keep survivors alive for 24 to 72 hours… until we can get helicopters on scene to bring people out of the field.

Keeping a large number of people alive in an area that is far from any civilization, has little natural shelter from the harsh elements, and is home to a large number of natural predators, like bears, poses a significant difficulty.

In Trenton, we have four MAJAID kits that are designed to sustain up to 320 people for 48 hours,” said Captain Angelo Manzara of the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre (CAAWC), located at 8 Wing Trenton. “These requirements are based off of the average size of an aircraft flying over the arctic these days.

As the centre of excellence for parachuting, mountaineering and arctic operations, CAAWC holds the high-readiness MAJAID capability for the Canadian Army.  “We are responsible to provide a twelve-man support group; when requested, we jump in and support SAR Techs.

Among the survival and emergency equipment that can be parachuted into the scene are two ARGO All Terrain Vehicles, designed to transport rescue personnel and equipment from the drop zones to the emergency scene.  In addition to these, are air-droppable pallets loaded with tents, heaters, food and survival suits.

We can always figure out the operational challenges for SAR, but the support piece in terms of loading cargo, getting forklifts, etc. – that’s key to success for a MAJAID,” said Major Harper.

Among the wide range of aircraft involved in the exercise were an HH-60 helicopter, C-17 transport aircraft and several models of C-130 transport aircraft from the 176th Operations Group, AKANG.  Two RCAF C-130s, a Cormorant helicopter and a USCG C-130 aircraft were also involved.

With so many people and aircraft participating in the exercise, some of the most important lessons learned focused on recognizing the importance of communication and coordination among the various rescue personnel within the RCCs, in the air and at the crash scene itself.

This exercise builds confidence in rescue personnel themselves: the RCAF SAR Techs, the USAF PJs, and the Canadian Army soldiers,” said MWO Smit.  “No one questions peoples’ tactical abilities to do the job. But getting together to do this, shaking hands, exercising and debriefing really help with confidence and understanding capabilities — building to a better effect.

 The exercise was challenging, with notional inputs that participants had to react to, as well as real-world tests.  “We had typical Alaska weather, so we didn’t have to plan for poor [notional] exercise weather, it was poor on its own and it inherently added realism to the scenario,” said LCol Westerland.

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