Search and Rescue: JRCC Trenton and 424 Squadron

By Doug Landsborough

Editor Jennifer J. Lacelle

Date: April 20, 2021

There are few places in the world that boast a natural beauty like Canada does. Between the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes, our magnificent coasts on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and everything in between, Canada is a place best experienced outdoors. And no matter what you enjoy—boating, flying, hiking, camping, hunting or just going on an adventure—you’re sure to find it here.

But even during a seemingly perfect day, there’s the potential for something to go wrong.

For the vast majority of us, “something going wrong” on the water, in the air or while we are potentially hundreds of kilometres from help means that we can find ourselves helpless and in potentially life-threatening danger.

Luckily for Canadians, we have the brave and dedicated individuals of our search and rescue services. I had the privilege of speaking with two individuals from the Royal Canadian Air Force search and rescue (SAR): Major Yann Patoine-Bédard, Officer in Charge of Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) Trenton and Captain Erin Pratt, an aircraft commander with 424 Transport and Rescue Squadron, also based at 8

Wing Trenton, Ontario. Both Maj Patoine-Bédard and Capt Pratt are two of the more than 200 individuals associated with JRCC Trenton to save Canadian lives on a daily basis.

JRCC Trenton and 424 Sqn cover an incredible amount of territory. Together with 435 Sqn based out of Winnipeg, 424 Sqn is the primary search and rescue response for people in distress between the Rocky Mountains and Saguenay River, from the Canada-US border all the way to the North Pole. That equates to about 11 million square kilometres, nearly one-third of which is water.

At its core, JRCC Trenton is an emergency call center operated CASARA by professional mariners from the Canadian Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Air Force SAR pilots and navigators. These operators receive distress calls, assess the situation, dispatch appropriate SAR resources and monitor the situation until it is resolved. When an issue arises, JRCC Trenton can deploy 424 Sqn.

For many Canadians though, SAR operations aren’t very well-known. Some Canadians might not even know that SAR is part of the Royal Canadian Air Force or the Canadian Armed Forces. Through speaking with Maj Patoine-Bédard and Capt Pratt, we hope to give you some insight into how the RCAF and Canadian Coast Guard work to save the lives of their fellow Canadians when we need them most.

Even on slow days, 424 Sqn is always ready, always working to hone their skills. “Train like you fight,” Capt Pratt said, taking a note from the famous quote by George S. Patton. Good or bad weather, pandemic or no pandemic, RCAF SAR members are training until there is a call to respond to.

When they do receive a call or distress signal, it sets off a sequence of events that requires many talented people to effectively pull off.

When a call first comes in, it is rapidly evaluated with the information they can get: is this a major incident? Is it faster to send 424 Sqn or nearby volunteers? Is it an emergency locator transmitter from a downed plane or someone who is reported a light in the sky that could be either a flare or fireworks?

As the Officer in Charge of SAR response at JRCC Trenton, it’s up to Maj Patoine-Bédard to ensure his Search and Rescue Mission Coordinators are able to answer, assess and task SAR assets effectively. When information is limited, he and his Canadian Coast Guard counterpart are there to make the tough calls. But with nearly two decades of military service backing him, Maj Patoine-Bédard is the best equipped to oversee and assign SAR missions. Right from the beginning, responding to distress calls requires a calm and experienced mind.

Once a situation has been evaluated and the basic information—who is in danger, what do we know happened, where are they/where were they supposed to be, when did they go missing, etc.—is gathered, a notification goes out to dispatch a SAR crew.

There are always SAR aircrews on standby at 424 Sqn but, in the event that the standby crew has already been dispatched, SAR members are expected to be ready to respond to an incident, whenever it might occur. During weekdays, there is a maximum of 30 minutes from notification to takeoff, while that time is extended to up to two hours during the evenings and weekend. Capt Pratt explained that this is to ensure crew members can be rested and maintain their efficiency.

Regardless of when a call comes in though, the members of 424 Sqn go through the same actions they would at any other time, with the same speed.

The “time from flash to bang” is the same, said Capt Pratt, which is a testament to how much of a well-oiled machine our SAR members are. And that isn’t just the rescue crew itself; there are dozens of individuals working behind the scenes from the moment a call comes in to make it all possible.

For Capt Pratt, she can arrive on the base and ask, “Can I have a helicopter, please?” and, without fail, will be told, “Yes, ma’am.”

Over the last year, like most things, COVID-19 has had an impact on how 424 Sqn and JRCC Trenton have had to operate.

For Maj Patoine-Bédard at JRCC Trenton, it meant more steps in place to keep those reporting to him safe. Normally, JRCC Trenton would be the primary hub of 424 Sqn and SAR operations in the region they cover, while a back-up location in Belleville operates in case there is some sort of break or malfunction in Trenton. Before the pandemic, crews would operate in two 12-hour shifts at Trenton, covering every hour of the day.

Because of COVID-19, that rhythm had to be broken. JRCC Trenton was still operating 24 hours a day, but only the day crew worked out of the Trenton location. The night crew worked exclusively out of Belleville and the two never crossed paths, ruling out any chance that both shifts might become infected if one did.

As we’ve progressed through the pandemic and have become more accustomed to the increased safety measures we’ve needed to take, things have started to move back towards being similar to what they used to be, but it will still take some time to get back to normal.

For Capt Pratt and 424 Sqn, COVID-19 has affected them as well. Except for the standby crew, which are the ones on-base to respond to calls, other crews are kept at home to minimize possible transmission.

Patient protocols have changed as well. Where possible, the SAR team is notified of possible COVID risk factors and they carry COVID-19 kits on board with equipment like N95 masks for the crew and other PPE. There are also new protocols for after a mission and, if a crew is exposed, they are quarantined while another crew is called in.

Even though COVID-19 has changed some of the ways 424 Sqn is scheduled, it luckily hasn’t affected their response or the way they do their jobs.

What does SAR respond to?

The RCAF has a primary mandate of responding to aviation incidents and accidents like plane crashes, but they also have a secondary mandate to assist with both humanitarian and marine incidents. When speaking with Maj Patoine-Bédard, he explained that SAR incidents—a reported situation which has the potential to require a response from search and rescue—are broken down into three distinct categories:

Aeronautical: A SAR incident involving an aircraft. This includes cases that occur while flying—off-course planes, hard landings and crashes—and issues that occur during takeoff like planes flipping over. It doesn’t include issues arising from taxiing on the runway.

Maritime: A SAR incident on the water involving a vessel, including the medical evacuation of someone from a vessel. Maritime incidents begin on federally controlled water, including the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence and parts of the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific Oceans.

Humanitarian: A SAR incident not otherwise classified under aeronautical or maritime, including rescues on provincially controlled waterways, people getting lost in the woods or situations where a swimmer starts on shore but gets lost in water.

If there is an incident that doesn’t fall under those three categories, it is simply labeled as Unknown.

While Hollywood might lead you to believe that search and rescue operations are rare events, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just last year, JRCC Trenton and Maritime Rescue Sub Centre Québec responded to 4,066 cases, with 2,664 of those being marine incidents. Among those, Air Force assets responded to 366 SAR incidents in the region covered by JRCC Trenton.

The frequency and severity of a call that JRCC Trenton responds to can vary based on the time of year or even the time of day. During the winter, lost or stranded hunters and snowmobile accidents are more common, though it is a substantially slower season.

For JRCC Trenton and 424 Sqn, the busiest time starts during the May long weekend and lasts until the Labour Day weekend in September.

During this busy season, calls to JRCC Trenton will usually start coming in around 1000 hrs (10:00am). These early calls might be as simple as a fisherman needing a tow after spending the morning hours on the lake.

Come 1600 hrs (4:00pm), more complicated issues tend to arise on the water. These more serious calls might include people not surfacing after going underwater, children drifting away on floaties, sail boats with single-person crews not returning on time and more.

JRCC Trenton considers it a slow day if they receive 15 calls in one day during their busy season. Last summer, their busiest day involved 59 different cases.

While these numbers are all sobering in their own right, Capt Pratt is anticipating an even busier summer this year. After more than a year of being kept inside, away from friends and family, more people than ever will be hitting the water, visiting cottages and heading into the woods for hiking and camping.

Among the hundreds of cases that 424 Sqn responds to, some aren’t resolved immediately. These major events are the most serious incidents the squadron responds to and can take days. Major events might include an aircraft being pushed off-course and going missing for any number of reasons. Ideally, the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) in the aircraft is activated and sends out a signal for help, triggering the sequence of events at JRCC Trenton described earlier.

While speaking with Capt Pratt, she described a major event in summer 2019 in Québec as “impossible to forget.” After a helicopter went missing, the operation took nine days to complete. In situations like


this, 424 Sqn works with other organizations and throws multiple assets—vehicles, staff, volunteers—to find those in distress.

The people behind SAR

The calibre of the individuals serving at JRCC Trenton and within our Armed Forces as a whole cannot be understated. As mentioned, I had the opportunity to speak with both Maj Patoine-Bédard and Capt Pratt for this article and got a peek behind the curtain at what it takes to be a part of search and rescue operations.

Maj Yann Patoine-Bédard is from a small town in Québec and grew up always wanting to be a pilot. Growing up on his family’s farm, he worked from a young age up until two days before he enlisted in the Armed Forces. He attended RMC Saint-Jean for one year and RMC Kingston for another four. As he progressed through his training, Maj Patoine-Bédard ended up touring with 439 Sqn, piloting the Griffon helicopter in a combat support role. He also joined 442 Sqn in BC for four years where he flew the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter.

While recounting his experience before becoming the Officer in Charge at JRCC Trenton, Maj Patoine-Bédard told me about an experience that has stuck with him since his time with 442 Sqn. Over Christmas in 2018, Maj Patoine-Bédard and his crew were called to medevac a pregnant woman whose water had broken in a remote BC town. With the full force of a British Columbia winter coming down outside, it would have taken more than 16 hours to get the woman to a hospital by road and the child would likely not have survived.

For SAR, Maj Patoine-Bédard said, weather is always the enemy. In this case, he was faced with navigating his Cormorant between thick clouds, down valleys and between mountains that loomed between 7,000 and 9,000 feet on either side of him. The snowfall was dense, but his night-vision goggles were able to cut through the flurries.

The issue came when a car would pass below. Most of us have likely been driving during a snowstorm and have faced the wall of pure white when oncoming headlights reflect off the snow. Wearing an optical device that magnifies the smallest sources of light, high beams from cars below all but blinded Maj Patoine-Bédard with each snowflake the light caught.

Despite the hazards and weather though, Maj Patoine-Bédard and his crew were able to extract the woman and get her to a hospital in time to ensure her baby survived.

Capt Erin Pratt has been a CH-146 Griffon aircraft commander since 2016. Like Maj Patoine-Bédard, she wanted to be a pilot from a young age. Search and rescue just felt like a natural fit since serving locally and helping her fellow Canadians when they needed it most was what Capt Pratt wanted to do.

Even with years of experience behind her, Capt Pratt still has moments when she’s up in her helicopter where she wants to pinch herself. Being up in the air and experiencing the incredible moments that come with being a pilot are second, Capt Pratt explained, only to being able to save lives while doing it.

Both Capt Pratt and Maj Patoine-Bédard emphasized the fact that it takes everyone and their particular talents and skillsets to make a successful operation.

When Capt Pratt responds to an incident, she is joined by a first officer in the cockpit, as well as a flight engineer and two search and rescue technicians (SAR-Techs). The flight engineer is a maintenance and hoist specialist who has to first be an airframes systems or avionics technician before taking an additional course to become a flight engineer.

SAR-Techs are primary care paramedics and survival specialists all rolled into one. As Capt Pratt explained, they are put through some of the most physically demanding work someone can think of.

They must be specialists in diving, parachuting, the outdoors, climbing and more. They must be able to administer medical care to a patient on the side of a cliff while being hoisted and are expected, in the worst situations, to survive alone and unafraid for 72 hours.

The exceptional individuals who become SAR-Techs must have at least three years of Canadian Armed Forces experience before being considered for the role and, even then, only 12-15 SAR-Techs are qualified each year.

It can’t be said enough how vital all roles at Trenton are, even those that aren’t on the aircraft that we all associate with search and rescue. Mechanics, avionics systems techs, aviation life support systems techs, operating support staff, operations staff and everyone at JRCC Trenton are all specialists in their roles, even if their official title might not have that specific term in it. Everyone working to make search and rescue operations successful have taken years of hard work and training to get where they are, and it’s their expertise that leads to saving lives.

Outside of 424 and JRCC Trenton, SAR operations are also made possible thanks to some incredible volunteers. While there are a variety of opportunities for people to give their time and skills to help search and rescue operations when possible, one group stands out in particular.

The Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, or CASARA, is made of volunteers who readily devote their time, resources and expertise to search and rescue in everything from training to actual missions, all at their own expense.

When speaking with both Capt Pratt and Maj Patoine-Bédard, there was visible awe and gratitude when speaking about CASARA volunteers and their willingness to help out.

Maj Patoine-Bédard explained it best when he described CASARA as great mission enablers. They are motivated and skilled individuals who assist as pilots, spotters or ground members. They place targets for SAR training or even act as victims in training runs themselves.

With CASARA volunteers across the country, even some in the Arctic, it is sometimes faster to dispatch a CASARA member to a remote incident than dispatching a Hercules or Griffon. When it comes to major events like the nine-day one Capt Pratt recalled in Québec, CASARA makes it possible to cover more ground and find those in distress more quickly. By utilizing CASARA members, Maj Patoine-Bédard and JRCC Trenton can also run their operations more efficiently, saving what is ultimately taxes paid by every Canadian.

Putting forward their own funds, CASARA has also acquired several drones to be used in search and rescue operations, providing essential information for the individuals at JRCC Trenton and the SAR crews they support.

Whether it be the members of our search and rescue operations or the volunteers that support them, it’s unquestionable that Canadians are in safe, expert hands when we find ourselves in need of help.

Lifesaving aircraft of SAR

When conducting search and rescue operations, 424 Sqn relies on two proven aircraft: the Lockheed CC-130H Hercules and the Bell CH-146 Griffon. Though the squadron doesn’t have their own watercraft, they use these two aircrafts in conjunction with their SAR partners in the Canadian Coast Guard to rescue Canadians on land and in the water.

 The Hercules is best described as a workhorse of an airplane. It can function as both a transportation craft and a search and rescue vehicle. It has a range of more than 7,200km and a maximum speed of 556 km/h. With the ability to carry up to 80 passengers, the Hercules can hold a larger crew and volunteers during SAR operations.

 When it comes to search and rescue, some Hercules planes have had their doors replaced with glass, allowing spotters to look out and down from the side of the aircraft. This is in addition to the view given from the cockpit and the large rear cargo door that can be open during flight. The Hercules is also equipped with a radar system that makes it possible to detect objects like boats.

Because of the large geography covered by 424 Sqn, the Hercules is ideal for missions in northern and remote areas. It can allow for searching over extended periods of time before refueling and can reach farther locations than the Griffon. For missions closer to home, the Hercules can drop flares over an area to make night searching easier from a Griffon or boat.

Depending on the need, a Hercules can also be used to dispatch pumps for use by sinking boats and can drop survival gear or rafts to help get people through while help is on its way. In certain situations, when a solid extraction plan is in place, SAR-Techs can also parachute from the Hercules.

 The Griffon is a helicopter that sees use within the Armed Forces as a tactical, utility, search and rescue and combat support aircraft. The Bell-412 is the civilian equivalent of the Griffon.

With a range of up to 650km and a cruising speed of 220 km/h, the Griffon is used for all sorts of rescue missions from marine to humanitarian cases in places like Algonquin Park. As a medium-sized helicopter, the Griffon can lack some features that other aircraft like the Cormorant offer, but the rigorous training that 424 Sqn go through more than make up for that and even capitalizes on the helicopter’s efficiency.

Time and again the Griffon has proven to be a reliable and effective helicopter for saving Canadian lives both here and abroad.

Safety Tips from SAR

After speaking with Maj Patoine-Bédard and Capt Pratt, it is reassuring to know that there are such capable individuals there when we are in trouble. That being said, Canadians should be mindful of our safety and take the steps we can to ensure that if we ever meet someone from 424 Sqn, it doesn’t have to be when they’re saving our lives.

When asked, both Capt Pratt and Maj Patoine-Bédard said that wearing a life jacket if one of the best things you can do. During our interview, Capt Pratt’s husband even shouted “life jacket!” from the other room. It is one of the easiest and most effective steps you can take on the water. A life jacket will not only save you if you’re knocked unconscious, but it will keep you afloat during what might be hours in the water. Most life jackets are also brightly coloured, making it easier for someone flying above in a Hercules or Griffon to see you.

Before you head out on the water, on a plane or out hiking, be prepared. This includes making sure your cell phone is charged and that you’re bringing safety equipment. Check everything before you leave and ensure it’s working.

Make sure you are dressed for the weather and the water. Maj Patoine-Bédard said that, even on days where the sun is shining, bodies of water like the Great Lakes can still be frigid. He pressed the importance of understanding the 1-10-1 rule in cold water: you have 1 minute to get your breathing under control, 10 minutes of useable time to try and rescue yourself and about 1 hour of survival before hypothermia will make you pass out. By dressing appropriately, you might be able to buy yourself a little bit of extra time that can be the difference between life and death.

 Always be sure to make a plan. If you’re boating, make a float plan and tell your contact person where you will be going. If your plans change, make sure to tell them so that you can be more easily found in the event of an emergency.

The same is true when taking out a plane or helicopter. Make and file a flight plan or itinerary. Ensure someone reports if you are late to land and check your aircraft before you take off. Most importantly, know when it is time to turn around. If poor weather is approaching, if you get blown off-course or have gotten lost, it’s better to land safely than to potentially crash.

 Even if you’re just going camping for the weekend, the more details you leave with someone, the faster you can be found if something goes wrong. In the worst situations, time is a luxury that some people don’t have. Every moment matters.

For anyone that has a boat or aircraft, make sure your emergency beacons are installed and functioning. On planes, your 406 ELT is that emergency beacon. If you own a boat, you should purchase and register an Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB). Both ELTs and EPIRBs broadcast a 406 MHz signal when activated that can be tracked across the world thanks to the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme, an intergovernmental, non-profit organization that uses a network of satellites to aid in search and rescue operations.

 Registering your EPIRB with JRCC Trenton not only allows them to track you within 6-8 minutes of your signal going out, but it tells the SAR crew who they should be looking for, what the boat looks like and who your contact is.


One of the easiest things you can do is follow JRCC Trenton on Twitter—they post statistics, information and safety tips regularly that can benefit all Canadians.

Even though the members of JRCC Trenton and 424 Sqn love their job and are dedicated to it, Capt Pratt said something that sums up what I think we all hope for.

“I want to be bored at work,” she said. “I want a season to go by where no one needs us.”

As Canadians venture out to enjoy the beautiful weather, especially after a long year of isolation, it’s unfortunate that Capt Pratt will likely be very busy this year.

“If you need us, we will do everything we can do to be there,” Capt Pratt continued. “We will do our best to push ourselves to the very limits to be there for you.”

That’s something that all Canadians should be thankful for.

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