NY develops system for better managing mass fatalities
By Charles Jennings, Ph.D., Director
Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS)
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
NEW YORK — In February 2011, Donell Harvin of the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner presented a seminar on mass-fatality management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. An experienced paramedic and public health professional, Harvin is also a member of the Regenhard Center's advisory board.
Mass-fatality management is important in all disasters, but especially where criminal prosecution may result. Careful and well-documented handling and treatment of the dead is critical to preservation of evidence, the positive identification of the deceased, and the dignified and respectful handling of remains and their return to the next of kin. A close partnership between law enforcement and medical examiner personnel is essential to accomplish all of these intertwined goals.
Not only the respectful treatment of the dead, but also the importance of considering the family’s and survivor’s needs, have gained increased attention. Following 9/11, images of families and loved ones posting photographs of missing persons — traveling from hospital to hospital trying to account for the missing — were among the most heart-wrenching scenes following the attack.
With this in mind, the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), working with several other city agencies, has developed a secure system to facilitate reporting of missing persons and the matching of decedents with inquiries received from multiple sources.
For large events such as transportation accidents (the most common type of mass-fatality incident), the City of New York can establish a Family Assistance Center. These centers bring together personnel to collect information on missing or deceased with social supports, assistance and law enforcement personnel. Even if families cannot come to a center, the end result is a one-stop experience for families to report their information.
The Unified Victim Identification System takes this process a step further by electronically linking law enforcement, hospitals, the city’s 3-1-1 phone system and the Medical Examiner’s Office in a robust information-sharing network to help locate and identify victims of a large-scale incident. In a disaster, the 3-1-1 system can be devoted to reporting of missing persons.
UVIS can accommodate medical information, dental X-rays, DNA samples and other information. It also has the capability to cross-match multiple reports and quickly develops an accounting of missing persons. For example, work colleagues and family may report the same person missing using different names or identifying features. Or a family member may know of a distinguishing feature or birthmark unknown to friends or co-workers.
The OCME has made the software available free of charge to other states and jurisdictions that wish to implement the software and become part of a broader network for disaster victim identification.
Users of the software can input information, and it will be exchanged with all other users of the software. This permits reports of missing persons to be taken at multiple locales (for example, the origin and destination of a flight), reducing the burden on overtaxed resources at the site of the disaster.
In that sense, UVIS is more than just a software program; it’s linking up to a larger system of jurisdictions that share privileged and confidential information about actual and potential victims and their families, from tattoos and photos to DNA. The system could thus form the backbone for a national victim registration network.
The proper handling of mass fatalities requires planning and coordination between traditional first responders and medical examiners. In New York City, they have developed and exercised a system that will aid in this process. They are committed to continue to refine and test it so it will be ready, should the need arise.
Charles Jennings, Ph.D., is the director of the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS), John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.