In the event of a mass disaster such as Hurricane Michael or the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Florida Emergency MortuaryOperations Response (FEMORS) is mobilized. The purpose of the all-volunteer group of professionals from pathologists to odontologists to forensics and IT is to recover, identify and maintain the dead. Last month I spent two days at its annual training, learning to make order amidst the chaos of a cataclysmic event.
|Me (far left) and some of the admitting crew [Source: FEMORS Facebook page]|
The process begins as National Guard troops map the area and record exactly where they located which body or body part, what quadrant, who found it, and who transported it to the emergency mortuary, where I will be working. The remains are signed over to a ‘tracker,’ who will stay with that body throughout the entire process without a break for food, water or restrooms. This sounds extreme, but the deceased would arrive as spotty floods rather than a steady trickle, and we found it surprisingly easy to get mixed up.
Their first stop is the admitting station, where all available information as well as the tracker’s name is recorded. Next, Triage will decide where those remains need to go—Radiology, Pathology, Photography/personal effects, DNA, Fingerprints and/or Odontology. Pathology is basically autopsy, or an external autopsy examination. Photography takes photos of not only the remains but clothing, jewelry, IDs, all of which will be sealed up and secured in a locked vault. Fingerprinting will scan the prints for comparison to available databases. Radiology will x-ray, Odontology will examine and document the teeth, DNA will collect samples for rapid DNA analysis if that is necessary or regular DNA analysis down the road. Developed for the battlefield, rapid DNA can produce (at great expense) a profile in an hour and a half.
|The outside (simulated) disaster scene|
If, say, only a severed hand is recovered, then it does not need to go to Odontology but will go to Fingerprints, and so on.
When all sections needed have been completed and signed off, then the tracker wheels the body back to the morgue. The morgue workers examine the paperwork and take possession of the body and the tracker delivers the paperwork to admitting for one last triple-check. At this point the tracker is released and can take a break if they need to, and the paperwork is sent over to the VIC.
Unlike the morgue, the Victim Identification Center looks more like a makeshift office with its rows of data entry terminals. Family members, calling or coming to see if their loved one might be among the victims are interviewed elsewhere; their descriptions of gender, race, tattoos, body abnormalities, clothes and jewelry worn is uploaded into a database—which is then compared to the information sent over from the morgue. Matches can be confirmed by photographs, fingerprints, dental records or, if necessary, DNA.
|The morgue and its units|
Of course glitches occur, usually electronic issues such computer systems not meshing. There were also three evaluators for the state walking around, to be sure grant money had been spent wisely. They would ask questions but we ‘players’ weren’t supposed to chitchat with them otherwise. The goal is always to improve the system, and each person is asked to contribute to a list of suggestions for next time. Security is tight—some real cadavers had been donated for our use, so unofficial photographing was strictly forbidden. But most of the remains were mannequins…which, I discovered, are freakin’ heavy.
It’s a grueling couple of days of an unrelenting pace inside a vacant gymnasium with no air conditioning (remember the F stands for Florida)—and it’s all just training. I can’t imagine doing all of it with perhaps limited supplies from roads out of commission, no cell towers, and no hotel pool to cool off in afterwards. But it has to be done, and we’re the people qualified, and proud, to do it.
Have you ever been inside a mass disaster?