Identifying those lost to disaster

Summer Wyatt-Buchan assesses Britain’s Disaster Victim Identification Unit and the delivery of essential humanitarian aid.

Artwork courtesy of Jacinta Yee

Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) is a relatively new field and is vital to a constructive international response in the wake of devastation. Those on a DVI task force are responsible for identifying victims of mass casualty incidents, man-made or natural. It was not until the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that the critical need of a British international DVI team was recognised.

In 2005 the UK was nowhere in the hierarchy of international DVI but by 2009 we were leading in the world.

Professor Dame Sue Black world leading anatomist and forensic anthropologist

All countries are vulnerable to mass fatalities whether the disaster is man-made or natural and those who perish must be identified. For this to happen effectively, everyone involved in the identification process needs to be prepared, have a quick response, invest in advance communication networks and have interagency cooperation emergency plans that are implented effectively. This process is understandbly complex, time consuming and extremly costly but somebody will be held accountable if the dead are not delt with appropriately.

In the wake of a disaster the aftermath generally exceeds the capability of  local response and international aid is often required. In times when this is necessary the country where the event occurred normally takes the lead but when international teams are required to do so there can be diplomatic governments and legal hurdles to overcome. When the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami caused wide spread devastation across several countries along the coast of Southern Asia, the UK did not have a DVI task force ready to deploy. This was a failure of the UK governement as only fingerprint officers were sent to assist the DVI response. In this instance private DVI companies took action before the UK even recruiting British specialists for help. The government should have had a DVI team ready; working on the basis that we would need a DVI response team not that one ‘might’ have been needed. Disasters WILL happen its just a matter of when and where; the world should be prepared.

In February 2005 discussions began concerning having a UK disaster victim identification unit and in 2006 the task force was officially set up with the responsibility to co-ordinate the identification of British nationals involved in disasters at home and abroad. The new process includes clear steps to ensure a family is matched with a victim as quickly as possible. Firstly, the responsibility falls on a family member who fears a loved one was involved in a mass casualty incident to call the emergency number released by the local government after the disaster occurs. Then a classification process is undertaken to determine the likelihood that that an individual was realistically involved. Over 22,000 British individuals where called in to have been missing in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami when in actual fact the final death toll for British citizens was 149. This signifies the importance of the categorisation process as somebody travelling the world who could have been in Thailand at the time would not have been as high a risk as somebody staying in a local hotel to where the tsunami occurred.

Artwork courtesy of Jacinta Yee

Next, a speciality DVI family liaison officer conducts an interview with the family to collect as much personal information as possible about the missing individual. Hair colour, eye colour, tattoos, scars, height, weight and GP/dentistry information. The officer would also be responsible for collecting fingerprint samples from belongings and where possible DNA. Samples of close relatives (such as the mother, father, brother and sister) DNA would also be collected as a means of comparison of the possible deceased. It is imperative that a sympathetic and caring approach is undertaken throughout in order to limit the family’s distress as much as possible. Once this data has been collected it is transferred to a yellow sheet of paper, known as a antemortem (before death) DVI form. This will then be sent to where the disaster has taken place; containing where possible, fingerprints, DNA samples and dental records. At the scene of the disaster the DVI team operating there will be collecting the same information but that of the deceased and will record this on a pink sheet of paper, known as a postmortem (after death) form.

The information on both the antemortem form and the postmoretem form are then compared in the matching centre at the scene. Best practise enures that matches are made using primary identification methods such as DNA, however, when this is not available secondary methods such as height and eye colour may be used instead. In order to avoid cases of mistaken identification it is imperative that the process is slow and done with caution. It is also vital to be aware of the criticisms made as to when identifications are not made quickly.  However, without DVI teams present families were taking home the wrong corpses on the basis that they recognised a decomposed body with similar features to their loved one.

The successes of the Indian Ocean tsunami DVI operations highlights what can be achieved when information teams and governments work together. This is a success that needs to remembered and utilised for disasters to come.   

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