Law enforcement and even U.S. Coast Guard personnel can’t always reach lost hikers, injured boaters and downed aircraft — cue a handful of airmen at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.

Crews working in shifts around the clock in the center at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida help fill the gap when state or local officials don’t have the resources to rescue missing persons within the U.S.

It’s like combat search and rescue, “but for civilians,” said Lt. Col. Evan Gardner, director of operations for the center, who recently sat down with for an extended interview about the mission.

The center, which falls under the command of 1st Air Force (Air Forces Northern), dispatches resources at the request of a state or federal entity, as well as government agencies in Mexico and Canada.

In 2016 alone, the center helped to save 354 lives on 969 missions — a new record for the rescue command, Gardner said. Indeed, since activated in 1974, it has saved a total of 16,554 people and boasts the highest saves-to-mission ratio of any command in the service.

Drone Search-and-Rescue Flights

Some operations require the service’s unique surveillance assets, including drones.

In 2015, two missions used unarmed MQ-9 Reapers over California, marking a first for the medium-altitude remotely piloted aircraft nicknamed the “hunter-killer.” The flights helped narrow down where the missing adventurers “were not,” said Lt. Col. James Woosley, commander of the center.

Officials said one individual was a missing mountain biker and another person was stranded in a forest amid a wildfire, but didn’t go into detail on the rescue operations.

Domestic drone surveillance flights don’t happen often — only when all other options have been analyzed and with approval from the head of U.S. Northern Command and, in some cases, even the secretary of defense.

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