Disaster Victim Identification (DVI): How it Began and Important Details
Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D.
June 1, 2022
As part of the development of the Certificate in International Humanitarian Assistance Response™, Foundation Chairman Jeff Morgan and I interviewed Pete Sparks, one of the leaders in Disaster Victim Identification as we know it today. Pete is retired from the Metropolitan Police, where he most recently served as National Coordinator from the UK National Disaster Victim Identification Unit and formally served as a Detective Superintendent. The following summarizes selected topics that Pete shared with us that will be featured on video in the upcoming certificate program.
A brief discussion of the evolution of Disaster Victims Identification (DVI).
Pete: A brief background and history in identifying victims of disasters were recorded many years back in the 19th century. Sight recognition was used those days because we didn't have the science we have today. Scientific measures are used in disasters, especially traumatic events, plane crashes, and such; sadly, people are significantly disrupted. The main things that we use are dental records, DNA, fingerprints, and footprints where such records exist. Now, INTERPOL, which takes the lead on the advice and the guidance for DVI, first published its guidelines in 1984. Every five years, the guidelines are reviewed and, if necessary, updated.
After the attacks on the 11th of September 2001, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani directed the medical examiner to identify every fragment of human remains recovered. The information will be forwarded to families if remains are subsequently identified (usually because of advances in science). That was quite a big step to take because it will take many years, and it is still ongoing.
Next came the Boxing Day tsunami in Asia in 2004. This was a tremendous international response led by INTERPOL, where the deceased were identified. People were being recovered from Islands across several countries and brought to a central place in Thailand. Because no one knew where these people had come from or who had recovered them, the teams who turned up in Thailand had to start from scratch. They came up with the DVI process that we now understand today. So, 9/11 and the tsunami were the two incidents that advanced DVI.
Problems when countries do not use the current more advanced methods of identifying victims:
Even in the last ten years, some Western, forward-thinking countries still don't use scientific methods. The problem with that is that if you only use sight recognition in a disaster, evidence shows that as many as 10% of those you’ve identified by sight can be wrong. That's the problem with sight recognition and why you've got to use something more formal, such as the science, or if you can't use that, you can use evidence of medical interventions.
If someone has previous medical history and they have some sort of implants, we can use these as evidence. In INTERPOL's rules, we have what we call prime identifiers, which involve science, and then we have secondary identifiers, including scars, tattoos, distinct jewelry, and medical interventions. The third is what we call supporting evidence. Some countries only use that supporting evidence. The fact that someone's got a driving license in their pocket does not mean it belongs to them (supporting evidence). That driving license might be someone else’s, so that's where it's come from and where we are now.
The prevalence of countries having their dedicated DVI teams:
Many states and countries have their DVI capabilities. Only a tiny handful have dedicated DVI teams because you haven't got the work and capacity to keep a team employed doing that. Most counties in the UK, for example, have a small number of dedicated DVI officers, but everyone else is trained in addition to their daily work, and they get called out to be used when a disaster occurs, so that's the basics of DVI.
The quicker we can identify the living in a disaster, the faster we can identify the dead. Having a manifest for a plane crash or a coach in a motorway collision can help. When we find out who should have been in that vehicle, on the plane or train, and we know who is alive, we can narrow down those missing people and get to where we want to be. So, identifying the living helps us identify the dead.
The role of DVI with regard to the investigation of a disaster:
Within any disaster where we have mass casualties or mass deceased victims, there will be some form of investigation. The exception would involve natural or weather disasters. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, et cetera, are different because the deaths come from some weather incident. There may not be any formal investigation into why that (weather) happened.
There would be a criminal investigation for terrorism or any transport incident. So, there will be some form of inquiry with planes, trains, automobiles, a building collapse, or an industrial incident. The state must investigate what has occurred, what's going on, who was responsible, and who may have been lacking.
If you've got an investigation running alongside a recovery of the deceased in a criminal matter, those dead become part of the evidential chain. So, they will be part of that evidence recovery, especially in a terrorism incident, because what you're looking to do is prove evidence that a person who's carried out an attack had some form of contact with those victims whom they killed. So that is something that needs investigating.
Reception and other centers that are set up to help survivors, families, and all who might need assistance following a disaster:
I'd like to talk briefly about humanitarian assistance centers and a broader range of centers set up in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Immediately after a disaster, several centers would be set up.
One of those is a survivor reception center. Anyone who survives that tragedy is directed to go to or taken to a specific location where they can receive immediate support, food, drink, whatever it is they need clothing to support those survivors at the same time.
There would be a family and friends reception center set up for the family members and friends of those we believe are caught up in that disaster. We don't want the families and friends going to the survivor reception center because, at the survivor reception center, you’ve got injured, you called witnesses, and there are specific actions that need to be taken there related to an investigation.
Once we’ve dealt with people in the survivor reception center and they're fit and free to go, we would reunite them with those coming to the family and friend’s reception center.
Now, within 48 hours of a disaster, the local authorities in the UK would set up a humanitarian assistance center with a broader range of support. Anyone involved in the tragedy in any way, shape, or form, be they a survivor, or a witness, would be directed to the humanitarian assistance center, including families or friends of those who have been lost in the disaster.
This is a “one-stop-shop” for people to go to. We would have several support agencies like the Red Cross, Victim Support, Salvation Army, and organizations. We would also have government agencies there, people who can very quickly get access to funds for these persons. The other things we would have are family support/bereavement counselors and similar types of support.
The good idea about the humanitarian assistance center is that there is no confusion about who should be going to this center. Suppose you are involved or affected by that disaster. In that case, you're entitled to go to the center. We came up with after 7/7 was the humanitarian assistance center because people were getting confused if they were a slightly injured survivor from the disaster or had a friend or something like that. Still, they weren't involved with the actual deceased persons. They didn't know where to go.
This humanitarian assistance center was advertised on all the news ticker tapes or along the bottom of breaking information about a disaster. You have the ticker tape along the bottom on TVs or the internet. They were told that go to the center for assistance if you're affected by this. We've even moved on from that with a virtual humanitarian assistance center, so you could even go to that center online.
The role of private business and industry in supporting the efforts of the police in performing the DVI process:
There will be some form of investigation in any other inquiry that is not a natural disaster. So, if, for example, an airline has a private company on standby to assist them, there's every chance that the airline will be investigated. So how can it be right that a contractor for the airline is carrying out significant work, particularly around the recovery of the deceased and engagement with the family? Regarding the investigation, I cannot see how that would be acceptable. The state, wherever it is, should be the organization carrying out the investigation. However, we can use private organizations to support that as they have a lot to offer, and we have done this in many cases.
Because we have many examples in our research where police and other officials have advised a family not to view their loved one following a tragedy where significant physical damage to their family member has occurred, we asked Pete to comment on giving this type of advice to families:
One of the things that I reiterate to the people I deploy to families is that we are not the decision-makers regarding viewing a deceased person. It is not for us to be telling families what they should or shouldn't do about the loved one. I'll give you an example here where we had some very severely disrupted remains, and that was in the July 7, 2005 attacks. We took photographs of those persons and used some professionals who'd made them as viewable as possible, if that's the best way to describe it. We then took photographic albums of those persons when we visited the families and showed them the photographic albums. This gave the families some prior notice of what their loved one looked like and would help them decide whether they wanted to view their loved one. We let the family know. It was whether or not they wanted to go to see them. It was their decision, and we would support them in arranging what was best for them.
More of Pete’s comments will be featured in the upcoming certificate program. At the Foundation, we feel privileged to learn from an expert of his background and experience and be able to share the education that we continue to receive from him and his teammates who have worked so diligently to evolve this field.
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