Wednesday, 28 February 2007
Disaster Victim Identification
I rise this evening to inform the Senate of disaster victim identification processes. I do this as I have been made aware by Senate colleagues over the last 18 months or so, and also by the public at large, of the ignorance that exists about what really happens in disaster victim identification. It is important that we as legislators and senators understand how this happens because the government contributes money towards disaster victim identification committees. In particular, $2.4 million has been allocated by the government for Emergency Management Australia to determine the physical capability needs and develop them over the next three years to provide equipment and facilities to respond to an incident involving 800 victims. I have also found that members of the public at large often think disaster victim identification is something that occurs readily and quickly, and they cannot comprehend, as indeed colleagues here cannot comprehend, the length of time it takes to determine the identity of someone involved and killed through a disaster. I would take us back to the tsunami of 2004, the Bali bombings and other incidents where there have been mass fatalities and delays in the repatriation of human remains to their loved ones.
I speak from a perspective that is unique in this chamber. I am a member of the Tasmanian Disaster Victim Identification Committee, and have been since 1996. I also speak from practical experience as a funeral director and an embalmer and as a former police officer.
The most important thing in disaster victim identification is to ensure that the deceased person is correctly identified and returned to the family that that person belongs to. People have often complained because the process takes a long time, but the reason it does take time is to ensure accuracy. That is the main aim of disaster victim identification. Often we are subjected to the television version of bodies lying in aseptic hospital settings, a sheet being removed briefly, and a relative or a person who has known the deceased person saying, ‘Yes, that’s him,’ or ‘That’s her,’ as the case may be. DVI, disaster victim identification, goes well beyond this. The pain and anguish felt by many awaiting the release of the body of their family member is usually prolonged by the necessary procedures of identification. But the long-term adverse psychological effect and heartache that would be inflicted on those same people if the body of their loved one was not correctly identified would, I suggest, be far worse. Experts point to this as well.
The response to any disaster can only be dealt with through an effective, coordinated and preplanned approach. Whilst it is not pleasant to think about Emergency Management Australia running a program to ensure that 800 people involved in a disaster could be correctly identified in a timely manner, preparation is the best thing that we can do. As a government we should be encouraging that we ensure we are prepared for all types of disasters and just hope they never happen.
The disaster victim identification plan has five phases. The phases of operation are conducted primarily by experts, usually from police and forensic circles. The first phase is the identification of the disaster victims. This is at the scene, and the scene is then treated as a major crime scene. Usually, anywhere where there are more than five fatalities in one particular incident the DVI procedure kicks in. What then usually happens is that the remains are left in situ until after the arrival of the DVI teams and the coroner, where applicable. Generally the coroner would take charge of any scene.
The scene is extensively photographed. The position of human remains is accurately recorded. The human remains are labelled, tagged, recovered and transported to the mortuary. Sometimes a base mortuary is set up; sometimes it is a fixed mortuary within an existing hospital facility. Property is very carefully collected and labelled, and the exact location of where the property was found is recorded as expertly as possible.
The second phase involves the mortuary. On arrival at the mortuary, the details of human remains are logged and the remains are placed in a secure area, generally a cooled area. The human remains are then examined extensively. I will not go through all the methods but they include visual, photographic, fingerprinting, radiology and odontology, and an extensive autopsy examination. Upon completion of this and an examination of any personal effects, the body is then generally released to the funeral-directing embalming teams, which can be situated in the mortuary or at another location. As a matter of interest, at the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 the bodies were handled by embalmers in the mortuary in the Royal Hobart Hospital. That was the first time that had happened in Australia’s history. That saved the autopsy technicians hours upon hours of extensive suturing work, which enabled things to happen in a more fluent and timely manner.
Phase 3 is another important part of the disaster victim identification process. Whilst the above phases are being conducted, information is gathered in relation to the potential victims of the incident, including any passenger manifests, in the case of transport disasters, and completion of detailed missing person reports by police—all the information that may be incidental to the disaster or the incident. Information sought includes a full description of persons as well as a full description of jewellery, clothing, dental records, medical histories, radiographs, photographic records et cetera. That ante-mortem information retrieval stage is when the detailed analysis of all this information is collated.
Phase 4 is the reconciliation process. In this stage, the ante-mortem and post-mortem information is matched in order to effect identification of the deceased person. The coroner is informed of the results of the identification process and then usually the appropriate paperwork for release of that individual is completed.
Phase 5 is a debriefing phase where operational debriefing is conducted at the completion of any incident to address issues such as the effectiveness of the operation together with the operational health and safety issues. Effective debriefing obviously permits recommendations to be made which can improve the management of future incidents. Critical incident stress debriefing is also made available to all emergency service personnel involved in any of the incidents.
Some of the skilled professionals involved include: the coroner and the coroner’s staff; the DVI commander, who is generally a ranking police officer within the jurisdiction where the disaster occurred; police, including forensic services and criminal investigation branch detectives; medical and dental experts, including forensic pathologists, forensic odontologists, forensic technicians, radiographers and other medical experts, and maybe government and forensic laboratories and any other assistance that is deemed necessary. Other skilled professionals involved include: victim support groups; grief counsellors and other allied professionals; technical investigators, which could include, for example, the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation or other police accident investigation units; support personnel, including transport operators, state emergency services, Salvation Army, Red Cross, security, administrative staff and funeral directors and embalmers.
Appropriate training is very important and Emergency Management Australia undertakes a lot of training. However, appropriate professional training is important for anyone to handle disaster victim identification processes. It is not the most pleasant task for anyone to undertake, and I certainly commend the individuals who work within disaster victim identification processes. They complete a very important aspect of what happens in any disaster. They are quite often unrecognised and, as I have mentioned earlier, the public really do not understand the length of time it takes to correctly, accurately and respectfully identify a person involved in a disaster. If more information were circulated in relation to this there would be greater understanding. We can always understand the anxiety of relatives wishing to see their loved ones as soon as possible, but processes need to be undertaken and this process is the best possible one to ensure correct identification.
Emergency Management Australia is conducting a number of seminars around Australia concerning disaster victim identification. Federal funding through the proceeds of crime has also been able to be used to obtain licences for an approved database for each jurisdiction. This will provide a repository for all scene post-mortem, ante-mortem and reconciliation material, which will significantly speed up identification in years to come. There is an Australian disaster victim identification standards manual. It has been prepared and distributed, and should standardise procedures throughout Australia and New Zealand and enable cross-jurisdictional support from anyone who wishes to assist. (Time expired)