When you’re in peril on the high seas….what happens behind the scenes?


By Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (Halifax)

Something has gone wrong on your vessel in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The seas are rough. The weather is uncompromising. You call for help over coast guard radio, your cell phone or by activating your Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).

Immediately, your request is passed on to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, or the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres in St. John’s or in Quebec City. The Centres operate 24/7 all year. Both Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) search and rescue desk operators jump into action.

As CAF aircraft are being launched and CCG vessels are being tasked, operations staff are simultaneously investigating and answering questions critical to planning and executing the search and rescue mission. For example:

  • Where exactly is the distressed vessel located?
  • Do we have direct communications with them?
  • What assets are currently in the area? How far away are they from the distressed vessel?
  • What is the weather like? How is the water like? Can our aircraft and rescue ships operate in this weather?
  • How many people are on the disabled or distressed vessel? Do any of them have medical issues?
  • What survival equipment is on board?
  • Where can our helicopters refuel in the region?
  • Is there a drift pattern? Can the distressed vessel drift away from their location?
  • What do we need to do to provide continuous air search coverage?
  • Do we have Next of Kin contact information?

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Our Arsenal

Marine and air assets for search and rescue are strategically located at CAF bases and CCG stations throughout Atlantic Canada.

Air assets include:

  • CC-130 Hercules, a long range transport and rescue aircraft
  • CH-149 Cormorant, a land-based search and rescue helicopter (large yellow helicopter)
  • CP-140 Aurora, an anti-submarine/marine reconnaissance aircraft used in marine search and rescue
  • Primary locations: 14 Wing Greenwood, NS; and 9 Wing Gander, NL.

CCG vessels include multiple SAR lifeboat stations, including Cape Class, Arun Class and the new Bay Class lifeboats. Most stations are open year-round. Sometimes, a small number of them close due to ice (i.e. Northumberland Strait).

During summer months, the Inshore Rescue Stations operate in high traffic areas such as Halifax Harbour, Moncton, and Conception Bay. This service enables fast rescue response in areas near the coast. Larger multi-task Coast Guard vessels are placed to respond and relieve the lifeboats for time-consuming search activity.

Atlantic Canada Search and Rescue Region

The map above illustrates what west of 30° west longitude, north of 42° latitude and south of 70° north latitude looks like.

It’s big.

This space includes eastern Canada, the eastern half of Quebec, and the southern half of Baffin Island. The area measures 4.7 million squared kilometers. Eighty per cent of that is ocean, with over 74 000 kilometers of coastline.

What does it mean to us in the JRCC?

Your preparation is critical in giving us the best chance for your successful rescue.

What should it mean to you?

Safety is preparedness. Your survival success is based on scientific data.

For example, for a person weighing 200 lbs, at 35 years of age, in 5° Celsius water, the survival models provide estimates in the chart below.

Personal Protective Equipment Functional Time (hrs) Survival Time (hrs)
With immersion suit 19.9 26.7
With floater suit 5.0 8.1
With regular clothing 1.5 3.0

Data Source: International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual


  • Functional time is the amount of time a person can reasonably keep themselves afloat without flotation aids. 
  • Survival estimates are based solely on body temperature forecasts. Every person is different.
  • Flotation in regular clothing will provide you double the survival time because losing muscular function alone will not cause you to drown.
  • Flotation can also help to prevent cold shock from drowning you.

The bottom line

Call us early. It costs nothing to initiate communication so we can monitor and work with you. When it becomes an emergency, the greatest asset is time. The most important effect you need is immediacy.

The CAF and CCG are the two principle agencies responsible for aeronautical and maritime search and rescue in Canada. Search and Rescue is a system of systems that receives support from numerous other search and rescue partners and volunteer organizations.

That Others May Live –

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