As a whole, rescue swimmers are part of the US military Special Operations Community because of the nature of their job that includes difficult training, the risk of capture (during wartime), and high attrition rates.
For starters, the US Military has three kinds of rescue swimmers:
I. The Aviation Survival Technician Swimmer (Coast Guard)
The Aviation Survival Technicians (AST), also known as the Helicopter (Rescue Swimmer) Team are elite members of the US Coast Guard highly trained for extreme rescue missions.
These rescuers undergo extensive training enabling them to handle deadly scenarios such as downed aviators, hurricanes, sinking vessels, and high sea medical evacuations.
Since recruitment began in the mid-1980s, over 900 people have trained and passed to become ATSs.
Currently, there are about 350 active members in the Military Helicopter Rescue Team.
They operate in different kinds of maritime environments after undergoing a year-long grounding.
One of the most important roles of an aviation survival technician is inspecting, maintaining, troubleshooting, servicing, and repairing aircraft oxygen systems, cargo aerial delivery systems, and helicopter emergency flotations systems.
Others are air/ sea rescue kits, special-purpose protective clothing, and portable dewatering pumps.
II. The Air Rescue Swimmer AIRR (US Navy)
The AIRR (Aviation Rescue Swimmers) is the Navy’s version of rescue swimmer, and is a tight-knight group with training to answer calls from the high seas when lives are at stake.
They work in treacherous conditions to provide humanitarian assistance, operational support, and relief/ recovery for rescue missions.
Some of their primary missions include:
Working as an SH-60 Helicopter crew member, coordinating with the pilot for the success of fleet missions.
Saving people aboard capsized or stranded vessels, pilots of downed aircraft, and mountain climbers/ hikers who are in danger.
Collaborating with other forces to rescue civilians in danger during a natural disaster such as a Tsunami.
Delivering supplies and aid during humanitarian operations to other countries
Transporting cargo and troops from/ to ships.
III. U.S Air Force Swimmers
The Air Force rescue swimming team, also known as pararescuemen (PJs), is a highly trained and specialized group, adapted to sea-based and land-based rescue operation.
Although pararescuemen have comprehensive rescue swimming skills, they sparsely put this expertise to work.
The training for Air Force rescuers is notoriously rigorous since the job entails Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) operations.
Usually, PJs train as paramedics and combatants for missions on the air, the land, and the sea.
The Air Force rescue swimmers are most active during wartime whereby they work to rescue abandoned special-operations troops, downed pilots, and any other stranded military person.
Other than that, PJs perform rescue missions during natural disasters and assist other military branches in different missions, thanks to their versatility and high-quality training.
Now that you have an understanding of the differences between rescue swimmers, let’s dive in to the real purpose of this article: Coast Guard rescue swimmers.
Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Requirements and Qualifications
The minimum requirements to join the Coast Guard are as follows:
Must be between 17 – 27 years of age for active duty, and 17 – 39 for reserve.
Have no more than 2 dependents
Pass the ASVAB (minimum score of 162)
Minimum of High school diploma or GED equivalent
Pass a background check
Pass a basic physical fitness test (more on this below)
Pass a personal evaluation, which examines your overall attitude, professionalism, honesty, and respect
These requirements are just to get in to the Coast Guard.
In order to qualify to train as a rescue swimmer, you must be in superior physical shape, have no chronic orthopedic problems, and “possess a high level of mental acuity and outstanding military bearing”.
In addition, you have to have a high degree of confidence in the water, as well as pass an aircrew candidate physical.
Here’s a more thorough explanation of the physical and mental requirements:
I. Physical Requirements
A Rescue Swimmer candidate should be in excellent physical shape and not older than 27 years or younger than 17 years.
The BMI standard for all trainees, regardless of gender or age, is 27.5 maximum and 19.0 minimum.
All applicants undergo a physical fitness program that edges out those who are not fully fit for the job.
Also, overall physical health is paramount and candidates should not have any chronic orthopedic problems.
II. Mental Requirements
Before joining the Coast Guard, trainees must pass the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) test, and have a high school diploma.
Additionally, The U.S Homeland Department subjects candidates to evaluations that consider a person’s professionalism, language proficiency, respect, honesty, work ethic, and attitude.
As part of the screening, all swimmer candidates undergo a background check and credit check.
Other than that, recruiters ensure that prospective trainees pass military entrance medical exam before joining the Coast Guard.
The height and weight requirements are as per the Navy Requirements and Qualifications Guidelines.
Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers Training and Career Path
The Coast Guard School is located in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and has a reputation for having a very high attrition rate.
Out of the 100- 75 trainees who join the Swimmer School every year, nearly 50% don’t make it to graduation.
In some years, the institution has recorded a drop-out rate of over 80%.
Once you make it through the screening stage, the first phase of training encompasses physical fitness.
There is a monthly regimen that includes a 200-yard buddy tow, a 25-yard underwater swim, and a 500-yard (or longer) 12-minute crawl swim.
Other monthly fitness exercises are push ups (50), chin-ups (5), sit-ups (50), and pull-ups (5).
During the physical training, instructors add even more pressure to challenge the trainees.
For example, during one evolution called the “Basket Test”, you’ll be required to jump from a tower, take control of a survivor, and get him or her into the rescue basket.
If the survivors head goes under water for more than 5 seconds, you will fail the evolution.
This is just one example of the myriad of curve balls that will be thrown your way during Coast Guard rescue swimmer training.
It ensures that graduates are adept to working in extreme conditions, which is vital for rescue missions.
Without mental tenacity, it becomes very difficult to successfully rescue people in dangerous situations.
Coast Guard Swimmer Class Work And Training
All Rescue Swimmer Trainees attend lessons for a 137-page operations manual that has eleven ways to handle survivor situations, seven ways of handling Air Force and Navy flyers, eight major water deployment procedures, and various backpacks/ parachute (military) detangling processes.
Additionally, candidates undergo a four-week course on emergency medical training.
The medical indoctrination takes place at Petaluma’s (California) Coast Guard EMT School.
Medical training offers swimmers’ basic pre-hospital life support skills, and includes things like:
Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
Stabilizing a patient with a broken back
Examine patients vital signs
How to administer oxygen
Perform airway maintenance
A Rescue Swimmer candidate must also understand the operation of the specific aircraft he/ she will operate with.
What Happens After I Graduate Aviation Survival Technician School?
After graduation, the Rescue Swimmers get assigned to onshore duties in various U.S military command locations or to any sea helicopter command.
There are Coast Guard stations all over the US and it’s territories, and you can be assigned to any one of them depending on the needs of the Coast Guard.
Advancements in training/ education depend on military needs and personnel performance.
Even so, there are a lot of promotion opportunities to the various ranks in the Coast Guard.
Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer FAQs
1. Is there a waiting list to become a Coast Guard rescue swimmer?
As far as we’re aware, there isn’t an official published list. With that said, you have to be serving in the Coast Guard for a minimum of 4 – 6 months before you can attend AST school.
2. How many rescue swimmers are there in the Coast Guard?
It’s estimated that there are currently 150 active duty rescue swimmers serving in 2019.
3. Is it a dangerous job?
Yes, it is. Swimmers get trained to operate in extreme conditions and deadly environments.
Most missions are high-stake situations and things might go wrong quickly.
When everyone else is heading in to port because of a bad storm or hurricane, you’ll be heading out.
Simply put, rescue swimming is not for the faint of heart.
There have been numerous Coast Guard rescue swimmer deaths since their inception.
4. How much do they get paid?
The Coast Guard Rescue swimmer remuneration structure depends on posting location and professional advancement.
There are many different career fields one can enter when deciding to join the active duty Air Force. When an individual has completed a Bachelor’s degree or higher, they are able to join the ranks as an officer.
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