Blue Line

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READY FOR DISASTER


March 16, 2015
By Jack Neri
229 fatalities - Swissair plane crash, Nova Scotia, 1998 
12 fatalities - Tornado at Pine Lake, Alberta, 2000 
12 fatalities - First Air Boeing 737 crash, Nunavut, 2011 
47 fatalities - Oil transport derailment, Lac Megantic, Quebec, 2013 

We are unlikely to know where or when the next disaster will occur or to imagine the number of fatalities and magnitude of destruction involved. What is more certain, however, is that there will be a next time and that police and forensic identification units across Canada are prepared to respond.

Forensic units provide highly specialized services in support of police investigations and are also responsible for disaster victim identification (DVI). Training exercises that simulate disaster situations, such as the ones that some certified airports are required to conduct, provide participants with a practical understanding of the complex environment they will encounter.

Many initiatives are geared for first responders and most local police forensic units are not usually asked to participate. To this end, Cpl. Jack Neri of the RCMP Southern Alberta Forensic Identification Section took steps to conduct a mock plane crash exercise. The objective was to provide hands on training specifically for forensic identification professionals responsible for processing large disaster scenes and handling multiple fatalities.

{Preparation}

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Twelve forensic officers from various police agencies were invited to participate in the mock exercise to supplement their learning and development as forensic investigators and to strengthen the local emergency preparedness of the jurisdiction. Inviting fire department and ambulance personnel and other partners was also deemed to be an important part of the overall exercise. Not only did it serve to highlight the collaborative working environment needed in these tragic events, it also provided these other external groups with an opportunity to test their own procedures and educate them about the role police and forensic officers have in disaster recovery.

Participants were involved in a two day training exercise that revolved around a pretend collision of two aircrafts above the Town of Coalhurst, just outside Lethbridge, Alberta. The scene was staged to resemble that of the 2011 First Air crash in Nunavut. The local fire department helped with the presence of metal debris, electrical wires and other features. In addition, a decommissioned 19-passenger commuter plane, two large cylindrical culverts and a flight recorder (black box) were provided on loan by local contacts. Other props included a school bus, car and mannequins and numerous volunteers, who played surviving passengers.

The objective was to make the crash site visually realistic. Bovine brain tissue, for example, was spilled on the mannequins to provide simulated exposure to graphic and traumatic injuries that are often present when dealing with dismembered or disrupted human remains. This level of attention to detail was done to mentally prepare participants for what to expect. The area was also meticulously staged so that the forensic group would encounter different scenarios and levels of problem solving.

A team of Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) dental detachment personnel and three civilian forensic odontologists also participated. Fingerprints, dental records and DNA are the three positive methods of identification recognized by INTERPOL. Therefore the presence of dentists and pathologists working alongside the group of police identification officers is crucial during a DVI operation.

A central working area was set up for all of the participants. In a real occurrence, plans should be made to have a minimum of two large shelters for police personnel, one as a command post and one for body examination, which is used to handle the bodies, belongings and other associated evidence. During the mock exercise, an additional inflatable shelter was used for the CAF dental team to conduct their work and to keep everyone at the site.

{Simulation}

On the first day, the forensic officers watched the initial response of the local volunteer fire and emergency medical services personnel. This provided an excellent opportunity to observe how other first responders were handling a large disaster. Participating forensic officers were then split into groups and asked to process each area of the site.

When teams encountered a body, they tagged it in such a way as to prevent the erroneous duplication of a body reference number. Participants used best practices and internationally recognized standards and forms such as those used by INTERPOL. The DVI forms developed by INTERPOL facilitate the coordination and importation of the collected data regardless of the language used in the DVI identification software (www.interpol.org). This is especially important when several forensic teams from different countries converge to a single disaster area. The ante mortem (AM) data can be easily transferred to a corresponding form in the language of choice, allowing for an immediate and effective exchange of information.

The next step for the forensic group was to take the bodies to the temporary morgue inside one of the assigned shelters. This part of the session was used to inventory clothing and personal articles found on a victim using INTERPOL’s latest DVI forms. These highly detailed forms are designed to gather all physical features and associated belongings from a deceased individual.

The second day of the exercise was dedicated to the collection of all personal belongings scattered across the crash site. Observers from various police agencies got involved and formed a line search. When an item of interest was located, the forensic identification members would approach, tag, photograph, log and collect the item. This was repeated until the entire crash site scene was fully searched and all personal belongings retrieved. An additional component of the simulation exercise was using a 3-D laser scanner to map the scene and an unmanned aerial vehicle (“UAV”) to record aerial photographs and video.

{Conclusion}

A major disaster can occur at any time at any location across Canada and when it happens the eyes of the country and perhaps the world will be watching. Simulation exercises involving all local emergency departments are highly recommended to prepare agencies to better respond during such an event.

Police agencies across the country are encouraged to conduct advance planning with their respective forensic units to respond to an aircraft, train or other large scale disaster involving multiple fatalities.

BIO

Contact Cpl. Jack NERI of the Lethbridge RCMP Forensic Identification Services at jack.neri@rcmp-grc.gc.ca or 403-329-5027 for more information on how to prepare for a mock forensic identification training exercise.