Teamwork beyond borders: Canadian and U.S. search and rescue teams work together

On clear, grey day, a red and yellow helicopter departs a grassy field in the middle of a forest. Nearby, there is a person standing next to a black helicopter.
A CH-146 Griffon Helicopter departs the landing zone for the evacuation of casualties from a simulated air crash site while an HH-60 Black Hawk awaits for the loading of casualties during a Search and Rescue exercise (SAREX) being held in the Comox area. Arctic SAREX 2007 is a tri-national search and rescue exercise being held April 1-5 2007 consisting of Canadian, American and Russian forces combining their military efforts to improve joint SAR capabilities that would be required in the event of a major air disaster in the Arctic. (Photo by: MCpl Robert Bottrill, CF Combat Camera)

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By Dawnieca Palma, Canadian Joint Operations Command Public Affairs

Hovering above the American side of a tumultuous Lake Erie is an H-65 Dolphin Helicopter. It is one of the assets that the United States Coast Guard has tasked to locate a person stuck in its unforgiving waters. Meanwhile, a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) CC-130H Hercules from 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron soars nearby, assisting in the search. Eventually, the Hercules locates the person in the water, and directs one of the U.S. Coast Guard helicopters over. The person is successfully extracted from the water, and another search and rescue (SAR) mission is complete.

This mission, which took place in Summer 2016, is just one of many SAR collaborations with our counterparts to the south.

Each SAR mission is its own special case, requiring the utmost care and collaboration. Within Canada, the CAF shares the responsibility for SAR with municipalities, territories, provinces, the Canadian Coast Guard, and volunteer organizations. However, given their proximity, SAR is also a shared responsibility with the Americans.

CAF SAR teams primarily work with the U.S. Coast Guard on maritime SAR missions, since in-land missions fall under state jurisdiction. There are non-binding agreements, or memorandums of understanding, in place between American and Canadian SAR coordination centres. These agreements allow CAF SAR coordination centres to provide and give control of assets, such as aircraft, for U.S. SAR missions when they call, and vice-versa.

Captain Dustin West, a SAR CH-146 Griffon helicopter pilot aircraft commander for 424 Squadron, describes what it is like to work with his American counterparts on SAR missions. Essentially, “our role specifically as the helicopter or the actual asset on scene doesn’t necessarily change, but who we talk to will change momentarily.”

To maintain their relationship and their effectiveness at working together, CAF SAR teams and their U.S. partners train together in a number of exercises. These include exchange postings and response preparation for Major Air Disasters, or MAJAID exercises.

Other notable examples are annual search and rescue exercises (SAREXes), which are training exercises held by each of the five major Royal Canadian Air Force SAR squadrons. Squadrons usually hold these exercises in the spring, and invite international partners, including the U.S., to train. The exercises consist of simulations of air SAR missions. There is a friendly aspect of competition among the participants to locate and rescue targets.

“These exercises are extremely valuable because they increase our knowledge and ability to work together. It’s about increasing interoperability,” says Major Scharf, Staff Officer for SAR Readiness from 1 Canadian Air Division.

From contributing to missions or training together, the CAF’s partnership with the U.S. is valuable to SAR in North America, not least of all because of the different perspectives each side brings. “People see Canada and the United States as the same, but, culturally, we’re different. In a lot of ways we’re different. We learn new things from each other; different ways of doing things, techniques, and different ways to apply equipment,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Toone, a Canadian Joint Operations Command/Rotary Wing SAR Trade Advisor.

“Working with American partners is always enjoyable,” says Captain West. “It’s just the same as working with any other professional agency. They’re accommodating to us, we’re accommodating to them, and we’re all there to rescue.”

All in all, the exemplary teamwork of CAF SAR teams and their U.S. partners is essential to keeping people safe in unpredictable environments.


Image gallery

  • A group of military members board a black helicopter.
  • On clear, grey day, a red and yellow helicopter departs a grassy field in the middle of a forest. Nearby, there is a person standing next to a black helicopter.
  • A group of military members stand in an aircraft as one member prepares to jump out.
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