Trending Topics

Book excerpt: The Science of Crime Scenes

Mass fatality scenes require the combined efforts of multiple agencies to tackle scene management, disaster victim identification and possible criminal investigation


Photo/Elsevier, Academic Press

The following is reprinted from “The Science of Crime Scenes, Second Edition” by Max Houck, Frank Crispino and Terry McAdam, with permission from Elsevier/Academic Press, © 2017.

Chapter 8.1: Disaster and Mass Fatalities

A disaster involving mass fatalities creates a specific problem that only forensic science can solve: Who died?

These situations are more than massive crime scenes, and they are situations requiring extensive cooperation, communication, logistics, and dedication. Hurricanes, floods, airplane crashes, bombings, spree killings, and other tragedies like these all require the combined efforts and resources of multiple agencies to tackle the issues of scene management, disaster victim identification (DVI), and possible criminal investigation.

A mass fatality incident is defined as an event where the number of deceased individuals who must be located, identified, and released for final disposition exceeds the local or regional resources. This may seem like a vague definition but there is no standard threshold for what constitutes a “mass fatality.”

The response to a mass fatality inevitably requires multiple agencies and organizations becoming involved, whether local, state, federal, military, or a combination. No one agency can manage a mass fatality without assistance from other agencies.

All agencies involved need to work together to see that the recovery and processing of remains is as comprehensive and complete as possible, the victims’ families are identified and notified, and the agencies’ normal daily operations are maintained as best as possible.

Some events that cross jurisdictions, like pandemics or coordinated but unconnected attacks, may be managed as separate incidents or multiple individual incidents; a centralized command may be created, however, to coordinate responses once the incidents are connected.

The incident command will vary depending on the type of disaster or mass fatality and could be the region’s chief medical examiner, the Department of Public Health, the state police or equivalent, a federal agency (like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, or the Centers for Disease Control, CDC), or a federal law enforcement agency, such as the FBI.

As was stated previously, one of the most important tools at a crime scene is communication: at a disaster, it is critical.

Ironically and sadly, communicating across agencies can be the most difficult thing to accomplish, as was revealed in the responses to the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City and Arlington, Virginia.

Each of the public emergency services and the military may have entirely independent, and in many cases non-compatible, radio communication systems. Therefore, coordination of the following activities is required for effective disaster event response:

  • Information management with status updates and analysis;
  • Identification, allocation, and provision of required personnel and material resources;
  • Implementation of operational plans for victim management; and
  • Provision of accurate information regarding the identification of previously missing victims to families and local authorities.

Electronic media, like text messaging or email, can be good for information but tend to lack the necessary context and emotion for communication. Do not ignore the power of a face-to-face conversation. Chaos can be delayed or even avoided by having a clearly defined command structure and delineated communication channels.

Emergency communications remain a challenge 10 years after 9/11

Although some improvements have been made in emergency management communications, there is still a great deal of work left to do in this area.

Chris Russo, a 25-year firefighting veteran, a 9/11 first responder and founder of ELERTS Corporation, recently told Homeland Security News Wire:

Interoperability between public safety agencies was inadequate, and in many cases nonexistent. The first responders on the scene at Ground Zero arrived from many different agencies and geographical jurisdictions. We were severely hampered by not being able to communicate with each other, as radio systems did not allow for interagency communications… There were some redundant communications systems, but in some cases, they were located alongside the primary systems and subsequently lost in the collapse. Many communications systems are designed with a redundancy, but it is based on routine loss, not catastrophic loss of infrastructure…9/11 was a massive wake-up call that our public safety communications were grossly inadequate for managing catastrophic events, with multiple agencies responding to the crisis.

The accelerating pace and diversity of communication technologies and how the public uses them continue to be one of the greatest challenges to emergency communications. For example, the use of Twitter, a social networking application, in the 2011 east coast earthquake exceeded its use when Osama bin Laden was killed, hitting about 5500 Tweets (messages) per second. Planning, funding (particularly funding beyond an uncertain annual grant cycle), and innovation will be required to improve these badly needed services.

The Disaster Scene

Perimeter security is even more important in large-scale events simply due to their size. A two-zone perimeter may be required.

The inner perimeter would include all areas in which victims, evidence, or property would be contained. Entry into the inner perimeter must be strictly controlled and documented, limited to authorized personnel.

An outer perimeter will be established by law enforcement at the maximum distance from the event that can be secured. No one other than assigned emergency workers should be allowed within the outer perimeter.

If the incident involves hazardous materials, hot, warm, and cold zones (in increasing ranking of safety) will be established. A data management system must be established to log, track, and update evidence, remains, contacts, personal effects, and disposition; the number of individuals or items of evidence may number in the thousands. A death scene initially should be treated as a crime scene, protected to minimize disturbance until all survivors can be removed.

The transition from search-and-rescue to crime scene investigator (CSI) functions – searching for and recovering evidence and bodies – is a major shift in operations; transitions are always difficult, particularly in intense situations where command may shift from one agency to another.

The incident command in conjunction with the leaders of the CSI and forensic teams should consider various factors as part of the situation assessment in the operations transition. A completely or partially new team of professionals may be needed in the evidence search phases.

A coherent, consistent, and expandable numbering system must be implemented for tagging and tracking evidence, human remains, and personal effects.

Determine what recovery and evidence processing methods are relevant to the event, and select and document them.

Establish staging areas, separate from those used for survivor recovery, to facilitate evidence processing.

Rotating shift schedules may be required, depending on available staff and resources; plan time for regular breaks and meals, debriefings, communications, and counseling.

Once the transition has been established, the primary functions for personnel responding to a mass fatality event are:

  1. Body recovery, including bodies and body parts, marking and documenting the location of remains, and transporting them to the next stage of processing, either decontamination or the morgue
  2. Evidence recovery, as per normal CSI protocols
  3. Decontamination, removing chemical or biological contaminants, if necessary, to render remains or evidence safe for further handling and examination
  4. Examination:

    a. Remains: triage for identification methods (fingerprints, odontology, anthropology, etc.) and autopsy in the morgue

    b. Evidence: documentation, collection, packaging, preservation

  5. Identification and death certification
  6. Processing for final disposition

Given the nature of the event, the focus is typically on the identification of all individuals who died as a result of the incident.

Human remains

Each unit of human remains is tagged, numbered, and removed from the site by authorized personnel (law enforcement or the office of chief medical examiner, OCME). Remains are transported to the morgue by a transportation team.

All personal effects found on a body or in association with human remains are not removed and stay with the body when it is placed into the body bag. Each human remain is placed into a separate body bag and given a separate number.

Depending on the size and nature of the event, the chief medical examiner (CME) will determine where to establish an event morgue. The site may be at the OCME or another location closer to the incident. The CME lays out the morgue giving consideration to the physical condition of the decedents, the number of decedents, and the number of personnel needed to perform morgue functions.

The operational areas may include areas for decontamination, admitting, forensic pathology, forensic photography, personal effects, fingerprinting, odontology, radiology, anthropology, DNA, and release of remains.

The event morgue may be a portable facility purchased and prepared prior to the incident or it may be one set up in a preexisting but non-forensic facility, such as an armory, unused warehouse, or even a parking lot with tents. Regardless, the facility should have the following to support morgue operations:

  • Secure perimeter;
  • Hot and cold running water;
  • Electricity;
  • Drainage;
  • Biohazardous waste disposal capacity;
  • Parking;
  • Restrooms;
  • Communications;
  • Refrigerated space for storage of remains.

The morgue should have a workflow defined (see Figure 1) to facilitate a systematic operation and promote consistency of operations.


A suggested workflow for a temporary morgue.

Photo/Elsevier, Academic Press

Along with the rest of forensic science, forensic DNA typing has revolutionized disaster victim identification, which allows for identification of any biological sample and the association of body parts, as long as sufficient DNA can be recovered from the samples. The methodology has even progressed to the point where tissue samples can be quite degraded and still render useful identifications.

Other methods, including anthropology, dental records, fingerprints, and even tattoos, should be used in a hierarchical process in the mass fatality identification effort.

Although DNA samples may be taken from each individual for later exclusionary or linking analysis, these other methods of identification can reduce or even eliminate the need for DNA analysis, which requires more labor, resources, and time.


Crime scenes with mass fatalities present particular – and sometimes extreme – challenges to the CSI. Approaching them as merely massive scenes is a mistake: They are some of the most difficult scenes to work, organizationally, technically, and personally.

The scale of damage is only one aspect, however, and the issues of mass identification must be approached with structure, forethought, and consideration for the living and the dead. Crime scenes with mass fatalities presents particular – and sometimes extreme – challenges to the CSI.

Further reading

Capstone Document: Mass Fatality Management for Incidents Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2005. U.S. Army Research Development & Engineering Command and Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Domestic Preparedness.

Interpol, Lyon, France. Disaster Victim Identification Guide, 2009. .

Lessons Learned from 9/11: DNA Identification in Mass Fatality Incidents, 2006. National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC.

Mass Fatality Incidents: A Guide for Human Forensic Identification, 2005, 2005. National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC.

Mass Fatality Plan, 2005. National Association of Medical Examiners.