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Canadian Armed Forces prepare for the worst-case scenario  

By Chris Thatcher

Published on: April 27, 2023
Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 17 seconds.

Search-and-rescue technicians of the Royal Canadian Air Force regularly parachute into mass casualty exercises. On occasion, techs, aircrews and supporting units train for the nightmare scenario — a major air disaster in the High North.

“No two calls are the same,” Capt. Paul Spaleta said as a phone rings at a nearby desk and icons flicker across a map on his triple-screen monitor. “Things have a pattern, but there are differences between each of them.”

A SAR aircrew in a CH-146 Griffon lifts off for a training flight from 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron. Crews are often tasked while airborne to respond to an emergency. Chris Thatcher Photo

It’s a quiet fall morning in the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) at 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario, one of three across Canada — the others are in Victoria, British Columbia, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, along with two marine-focused stations in Quebec City and St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Collectively, the centers provide a 24/7 response to search-and-rescue (SAR) calls from an area that extends hundreds of nautical miles into the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and from the Canada-U.S. border up to the North Pole. The central Canadian search region of JRCC Trenton is the largest — more than 10 million square kilometers (3.9 million square miles) — that includes the Great Lakes, Hudson’s Bay, and the Arctic Ocean.

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is responsible primarily for SAR from the air, but the JRCCs also coordinate maritime responses. Working alongside marine coordinators from the Canadian Coast Guard, air force SAR mission coordinators (SMC) like Spaleta will determine which assets to deploy based on the nature of the call. And those calls can come from anywhere: an activated location beacon on a plane, boat or person, an air traffic controller when a plane is overdue, a spouse when a partner has failed to return from an afternoon of flying, a bystander on the shoreline witnessing a vessel in distress, or a provincial police force requesting SAR support in a difficult-to-reach area.

Mission coordinators and assistants will triage the calls, confirming an incident, determining whether the JRCC or local authorities are best positioned to respond, defining a search area that will narrow as more information is gathered, and assigning an air and/or marine response and tasking assets.

Master Warrant Officer Dan Verret, SAR leader at 424 Squadron and the exercise director, initiates the exercise with a call to the inbound CC-130H Hercules. Pte Travis Curtis Photo

“I am kind of like the 911 operator, but also the investigator and the dispatcher,” Spaleta explained.

In a typical year, JRCC Trenton will receive around 4,000 calls, but just like the calls themselves, few years are considered typical — calls exceeded 4,700 in 2021. In the summer months, as hikers head out on the trails of provincial parks, boaters cruise the Great Lakes, and private pilots take to the skies, the center can have as many as 50 cases on the go at once, and 10 or more that require further investigation — identifying vessels or aircraft ownership and checking their likely location. Most often, the calls are a false alarm, such as a float plane operator who has failed to turn off an emergency locator transmitter (ELT). Still, every call must be investigated.

“When it gets hopping, this is a very active rescue center,” Spaleta said, and it requires multiple assistants working with air and marine coordinators to respond and attempt to resolve each call.

Most calls that require RCAF assistance can be managed by scheduled SAR standby crews of pilots, flight engineers, air combat systems officers, loadmasters, and SAR technicians. They are on two-hours notice to move but CC-130H Hercules and CH-146 Griffons or CH-149 Cormorants are frequently airborne when a mission comes in and can be re-tasked immediately.

Once on the ground near the downed aircraft, SAR technicians plan their response. Pte Travis Curtis Photo

(RCAF SAR crews were previously on 30-minute standby, 40 hours a week, but that requirement was suspended temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic due to “staffing issues and COVID protocols,” explained Maj. Marc Crivicich, the officer in charge of JRCC Trenton. The average response time has been around 70 minutes. “RCAF SAR is still achieving our mission on behalf of Canadians day in and day out.”)

However, if the incident involves a missing or crashed aircraft with more casualties than that normal standby crew can manage, it might be declared a “MAJAID.” And a major air disaster, depending on the location and scale, will trigger a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) contingency plan called Soteria, named for the Greek goddess of safety, salvation and preservation from harm.

Once the JRCC investigation confirms a report of an overdue aircraft from air traffic control or the activation of an ELT beacon from the Canadian Mission Control Centre (CMCC), one floor above, the likelihood of a crash increases and things start to spool up quickly. SMCs will isolate the case and make it their sole focus, allowing others to manage new calls.

The rescue center will launch the first aircraft, but might have limited information about the severity of the situation and those injured “until the SAR techs have inserted,” Crivicich said. “Concurrently, the RCAF is gearing up the MAJAID response and standing up the various units and resources to respond in accordance with CONPLAN Soteria.”

Master Cpl David Campeau, the medical boss for the exercise, and a member of the Army’s Airborne Support Group head back for another patient after loading an injured passenger onto the Griffon. Pte Travis Curtis Photo

First response

On a cool morning in early November, with the temperature hovering around zero degrees Celsius (32o F), members of 8 Wing Trenton trained for such a scenario. The call — simulated — of the possible crash of a small plane with nine people on board was received by a JRCC mission controller the night before. The wooded terrain was inaccessible to vehicles and a parachute drop would be required.

The SMC notified 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron and the operations officer of the Canadian Army Advanced Warfare Centre (CAAWC), a training center for jungle warfare, Arctic and complex terrain that retains a 12-person airborne support group (ASG) on 12 hours notice to report. The alert was also provided to 436 Transport Squadron, which operates a fleet of CC-130J Hercules, and the Combat Aerial Delivery Support (CADS) Section, which maintains specialized containers with emergency equipment.

By 6 a.m., aircrews, SAR technicians and the ASG team were on the ramp as the H- and J-model Hercules began warming up and the CH-146 Griffon helicopter crew arrived to prepare for multiple casualty extractions.

Five SAR techs parachuted onto the scene shortly after 9 a.m., with only one minor mishap when a tech was blown offline and landed in the trees. They found the broken fuselage of a small plane on an awkward incline and nine casualties, with injuries ranging from major bleeds to head injuries, an abdominal evisceration, and severe neck lacerations. All were coded red, but all were alive.

Jumpers from the Army’s Airborne Support Group parachute into the MAJAID scene with shelters and other lifesaving equipment. Pte Travis Curtis Photo

“We really put a focus on the fact that this is a traumatic scene. It might look different every time you do it,” explained Body Thompson, a former CAF med tech and now a civilian paramedic helping with 424 Squadron training. Thompson prepared the “casualties” with realistic looking makeup and prosthetics and advised on how to simulate symptoms.

While Master Cpl. Dominic Allard, the on-scene commander (OSC), pronounced “oscar,” took up an oversight position to establish a collection point for the casualties and serve as the communications link between the SAR techs on the ground and the circling Hercules, the JRCC, and the inbound helicopter, Master Cpl. David Campeau, the medical boss, coordinated the initial casualty assessment and began prioritizing patients for evacuation.

Allard, serving for the first time in the OSC role, admitted it was difficult not to triage the injured. “You feel like you want to get more involved,” he said, as cries of pain echoed around him.

424 Squadron puts an emphasis on plane crashes because it’s a realistic scenario in their area of responsibility, Thompson explained. “We do this at this time of year because we want to focus on hypothermia. Mass casualties are way different than treating an individual patient. You can’t spend as much time on one because you need to focus on all. So, we really focus on triage, hypothermia management and bleed management, and then extraction. Once [the casualties] get moved into the tents, then you can start treating them.”

Makeup and prosthetics are used to make injuries appear as realistic as possible. Pte Travis Curtis Photo

Supporting drop

SAR techs typically jump with enough supplies, including small tents and basic gear, to sustain themselves and two to three patients for about 24 to 48 hours. A crashed jet plane or even a small passenger aircraft requires far more lifesaving support. The Army’s ASG parachutes with a much larger supply of tents, generators, heaters, food, water, and clothing to support as many as 320 passengers for about 72 hours. The eight MAJAID kits are comprised of 32 boxes that would require two Hercules to transport and drop, but they can be scaled to the scope of a particular emergency.

“The kits are operational, always ready to go,” said Warrant Officer Jody Hynes, second-in-command of MAJAID at the CADS Section, which maintains and repacks the kits. “We do one kit per month, and it takes us about four days.” ASG personnel help unpack and repack the kits to become familiar with how the equipment works.

For this exercise, two training kits were accurately dropped along with an Argo all-terrain vehicle, followed by the 12 ASG jumpers. Hynes, a SAR technician by trade who now serves as an instructor, parachuted in with the SAR techs to provide drop zone control, providing the CC-130J aircrew “an actual grid and run-in so when they get on-scene they know exactly which direction they will be heading. They give me a six-minute call and a one-minute call so I can give them the wind direction and the wind speed.”

The CAAWC is responsible for over 20 training courses, so frequent exposure to the MAJAID kits and regular exercises with the SAR techs and CC-130J crews is critical for members recently assigned to the ASG, which can change about every three months, said Capt. Jean-Christophe Ouellet, CAAWC operations officer.

A SAR technician treats a neck laceration and other injuries inside a fuselage while monitoring for hypothermia. Pte Travis Curtis Photo

“It pulls from everyone in the unit,” he said. Some ASG members only completed a static line square canopy course the week before and were participating in the MAJAID scenario for the first time. “They’ll get their hands on the gear, which is important for us to help the SAR techs do their job.”

Once the Army team had the tents assembled at a casualty collection point, they began assisting the SAR techs with moving the injured to the warmer shelter where they could be treated. Within 30 minutes of stabilizing the most critical patients, the distinct whirl of the approaching CH-146 Griffon could be heard beyond the trees. As soon as the helicopter touched down in a nearby clearing, the ASG personnel began transporting the first two patients. The Griffon immediately lifted off to a notional forward operating base and a medical team — in realty, the squadron hangar — a process that would be repeated two more times.

In the event of an actual major air disaster, the Griffon and the larger CH-149 Cormorant might also have to extract the SAR and ASG team.

“That at times is often as big a job as the insertion can be,” noted Master Warrant Officer Dan Verret, the SAR leader at 424 Squadron and the exercise director.

Members of the Airborne Support Group transport a patient to the CH-147 Griffon. Pte Travis Curtis Photo

“There are a lot of moving parts,” Campeau, the medical boss, observed. A normal response is usually two SAR techs on the ground and an aircrew commander supporting from above. Coordinating multiple agencies and multiple platforms requires “mission consideration and mission planning. That’s why this training is important to us.”

Though the training was conducted at Canadian Forces Detachment Mountain View, an airfield not far from Trenton, the intent was to simulate some of the conditions SAR techs and helicopter crews might encounter if it were a plane crash or grounded cruise ship in the High North — the nightmare scenario for which the CAF must prepare.

“Imagine an incident like [this] happening north of Cambridge Bay [on Victoria Island, Nunavut], with [multiple aircraft] arriving under uncontrolled conditions,” said Sgt. Rob Featherstone, the section warrant officer at JRCC Trenton.

Every SAR squadron aims to do MAJAID training scenario once a year, Verret said. Because 424 Squadron is co-located with the Army ASG, the MAJAID kit delivery section, and 436 Squadron, “we have the luxury … of being able to partake in each others’ exercises.”

The CC-146 Griffon lifts off with its first patients to meet a medical team at a forward operating base. Pte Travis Curtis Photo

The exercise is particularly important for new squadron members who, as part of their training, will complete a scenario that involves a group jump, mass casualties, and helicopter extraction, “but it is not as large as this,” he noted. The added attention from observers and media “adds an element of realism to it. It ramps up the stress. It’s challenging coming into an area when there are a lot of eyes watching.

“Anytime we do an exercise like this there will always be lessons learned,” Verret concluded. “We’ll never do everything perfect, but mission success here: lives were saved, and inter-unit cooperation was phenomenal. Everybody played their part.”

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