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.

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