Responding to search and rescue

Our 24/7 centre responds to search and rescue (SAR) incidents throughout Australia.

The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) operates 24 hours 7 days a week from our head office in Canberra. It is staffed by personnel with backgrounds in naval, merchant marine, air force, civil aviation, or police services.

JRCC Australia has been operating since 1997 when the SAR functions of Airservices Australia and AMSA merged into a single agency.

Merging both aviation and maritime SAR coordinator responsibilities has greatly enhanced the response to SAR incidents.

JRCC Australia responds to approximately 7000 incidents per year, of which approximately 2000 are emergency beacons.

JRCC responsibilities

Our highly qualified SAR officers coordinate maritime, aviation and beacon-related incidents that fall within the Australian SAR region.

The JRCC is also responsible for:

  • managing and operating the Australian ground segment of the Cospas-Sarsat distress beacon detection system
  • coordinating medical evacuations
  • broadcasting maritime safety information
  • operating the modernised Australian ship tracking and reporting system (MASTREP).

The JRCC acts as our 24/7 point of contact for:

  • SAR
  • maritime assistance services
  • marine pollution response
  • ship and seafarer safety.

Activating the SAR system

The SAR system activates when SAR authorities are alerted to a situation where a human life is believed to be at risk.

The JRCC can be alerted to a distress situation by:

  • a distress beacon alert
  • a satellite emergency notification device
  • communication through the global maritime distress and safety system 
  • notification of a missing civil aviation aircraft alerted by Airservices Australia
  • radiotelephone (see below)
  • a phone call from concerned family or friends or general public.

Once the JRCC receives a distress situation alert, the priority is to gather as much information as possible.

This may include looking up information such as:

  • beacon registration information
  • emergency contacts
  • flight plan or flight note information
  • air traffic services or other aircraft flight information data.

The intelligence gathering phase assists in developing the most effective response plan.

Useful information may include:

  • a location
  • vessel or aircraft type
  • number of people involved
  • medical information.

SAR authorities can then determine what resources are required and take action immediately. This may include:

  • coordinating a SAR operation with assistance from organisations as appropriate
  • providing assistance to other search and rescue organisations
  • transferring coordination to the appropriate State or Territory police organisation to conduct search and rescue operations within their jurisdiction.

Radiotelephone distress call 

The JRCC can be alerted to a maritime distress situation via its 24-hour nationwide high-frequency (HF) radiotelephone monitoring capability on 4 125, 6 215, 8 291, 12 290 and 16 420 kHz.  

Inadvertent activation of the SAR system

The SAR system responds to every distress alert on the assumption it is real distress. This can sometimes result in SAR authorities responding to incidents that turn out to be non-distress related.

The JRCC frequently deals with inadvertent alerts. These can be through:

  • accidental beacon activations
  • failure to cancel SARTIMES (where a pilot registers a future arrival time)
  • incorrect disposal of beacons
  • mishandling of a beacon
  • aircraft failure to report arrival to Air Traffic Services.

It is important that beacon owners understand the responsibility of correctly storing or handling a distress beacon and ensuring they know what to do when accidentally activating a beacon by mistake.

This also applies for pilots who forget to cancel their nominated SARTIMES. We recommend putting a reminder in your phone.

If you inadvertently activate the SAR system, contact the JRCC immediately (via the 24hr emergency contact numbers) to prevent SAR authorities initiating an unnecessary SAR response. Unnecessary responses can divert SAR resources away from a real distress situation.

There is no penalty for reporting inadvertent activations.

To report an inadvertent distress alert, please call the 24 hour phone number on our emergency contacts page.

Related information

Last updated: 17 December 2021