Mass Fatality Planning

This information a resource for senior leadership at local, regional, state, and federal levels when dealing with mass fatality incidents. It presents a brief outline of the roles, responsibilities, and response plans of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in the event of a mass fatality incident. The OCME staff routinely reviews and practices the plan through exercises and drills.

The OCME has three major responsibilities:

  • Assist Law Enforcement with the scientific identification of the deceased
  • Certify the cause and manner of death for each death
  • Collect evidence that may be necessary for criminal prosecution
To meet these responsibilities, the OCME is involved in many levels of the response, as described in greater detail below.

One of the most emotionally and technically difficult aspects of dealing with mass fatality events is helping community leaders to communicate appropriate expectations for scientific identification and release of victims to their next-of-kin. While there may be circumstantial and investigative data tentatively identifying victims of a mass fatality incident, scientific identification whenever possible is the established standard for final identification.

Scientific identification is based on comparison of documented antemortem and postmortem information such as fingerprints, dental x-rays, body radiographs, or DNA for each decedent. Gathering antemortem information from medical records, dental records, law enforcement and family can be time consuming and procedures like DNA analysis may take weeks. None of these procedures happen as quickly as is portrayed on television shows.

Scientific identification is required in these cases to avoid future legal issues involving inheritance, civil liability, and/or criminal prosecution. In most mass fatality incidents visual identification is prevented by the condition of the remains. In other cases with better preservation of remains abundant scientific studies document the unreliability of visual identification. Scientific confirmation of identification, while delaying release of remains, assures that the correct remains are re- leased to the correct families.  As the number of fatalities increases, the use of scientific identification becomes more critical.

The OCME is committed to working with law enforcement to identify all decedents in a scientific manner as quickly and efficiently as possible. Please review the information provided below for a more detailed explanation of the steps that will be taken.

Initially the OCME will send a team to the incident site to assist law enforcement and the ICS Commander with the recovery of human remains.

  • Careful scene documentation will be carried out.
  • It is important to note that wallets, jewelry, and other personal effects will not be removed from any decedent at the site.
  • As human remains are located and documented, the OCME will authorize the removal of remains to a facility for forensic processing. Any personal effects that are attached to human remains will remain attached and will be processed at the separate facility.

At the facility for forensic processing (temporary morgue or OCME district office) the OCME will work to conduct examinations on each decedent recovered from the incident site.

  • The OCME will determine cause and manner of death for each decedent.
  • All evidence will be collected and documented during the examination of human remains.
  • The identification process will be started with the postmortem collection of fingerprints and DNA. Dental examinations, x-rays, and anthropological examinations may also take place if necessary for identification.

Following a disaster incident, the Family Assistance Center (FAC) should be established as quickly as possible by the locality, transportation owner, or the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. The OCME will establish an Antemortem Data Group within the FAC. The mission of this group is to interview families and concerned friends of possible disaster victims to collect antemortem information and collect DNA samples from blood relatives for possible identification of decedents.

  • By VA Code §32.1-309.1 identification is the responsibility of the law enforcement agency.
  • The OCME will provide technical assistance for scientific identifications.
  • The OCME will utilize DMORT’s Victim Identification Profile (VIP) form when interviewing families to obtain antemortem data.
  • Identifications will be done using scientific methods. This is standard for incidents with multiple fatalities when scientific identification is possible. Scientific identifications are done by comparison of unique features documented prior to death and from the remains. This takes time and does not happen rapidly.
  • Families and friends should not report to the morgue for visual identification, as it is not a reliable form of identification during a mass fatality incident. We do not want to traumatize the families any further.
  • Once a positive, scientific identification is made through fingerprints, dental records, radiographs, or DNA comparison, the OCME will notify the investigating law enforcement agency so that proper next-of-kin notification can be made. Ideally this will take place at the FAC and the OCME can assist law enforcement.