‘Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I shall measure with mathematical exactness, the tender mercies of its people, their loyalty to high ideals and their respect for the laws of the land.’
This quote by British Prime Minister William Gladstone in the late 1800’s exemplifies the role of the Disaster Victim Identification teams who are deployed after tragedy and death have left behind a jigsaw puzzle of body parts and clues.
It is never pleasant, clean or easy work yet the role of returning victims to their family is as vital as the investigation into the cause or research into how these disasters can be survivable in the future.
Act of nature or act of terror, failure of machines or simple human error, lives and bodies torn apart. These are the stark realities that fall to a select group of people who must recover and rebuild a life lost and read the story of death.
Finding the right people with the required skills and the ability to continue working within such a harsh and tragic environment requires training and graphically realistic scenarios.
Senior Constable Bindi Burnell, from the Crime Scene Examination Unit of NT Police is no stranger to the challenging and often confronting face of death. A Police Officer for 18 years, Senior Constable Burnell found she had a natural instinct for forensic investigations and was drawn to the most challenging cases.
“Fire scene examination, skeletal remains and of course disaster victim identification requires enormous patience and a step by step process.
“We don’t have a dedicated DVI unit in the Northern Territory so by training others with the desired skills we can maintain a core group who can respond when needed to get the job done in a professional manner.
“Crime Scene Examiners, Detectives, Dentists (Odontologists), Pathologists, Coroners Constables and Anthropologists all have basic skills required in the field of victim identification.
“The exercise we put them through is an introduction to a crime scene, the relevant Interpol documentation and accepted international protocol for the process of unidentified victims.”
In May this year Northern Territory Police conducted a Disaster Victim Identification exercise in Darwin. Forty-two personnel took part including NT Police, Federal Police, two Police Officers from Hong Kong, Defence Force Members, an Anthropologist, Forensic Odontologists, a Pathologist from Indonesia and a group of dentists and undergraduate students.
Phase 1 of the exercise was a disaster scenario followed by the setting up of an operating mortuary as Phase 2.
Senior Constable Burnell and Detective Senior Sergeant Bradley Currie set up the parameters for the course and put the teams through a tough and very realistic scenario ensuring protocol and process was followed every step of the way.
DS/SGT Currie is one of the NT’s most experienced DVI members. He was one of a dozen Officers from the NT who responded to the Christchurch earthquake in 2011 and said the training and awareness he possessed prior to arrival in New Zealand was priceless.
“With so many people from all over the world arriving in Christchurch’s hour of need the way everyone got together and produced a professional effort was a testament to pre-planning. No one ever wishes for this to happen but when you work in emergency response you must prepare for the worst.”
Having observers and instructors on the course who have seen and contributed to the realities of DVI added a dimension thoroughly appreciated by the organisers and eagerly absorbed by the inductees.
Dr Tony Hill, attached to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine as a Forensic Odontologist since 1998, is highly experienced in Disaster Victim Identification and has been involved in the repatriation of victims from such disasters as the Bali terrorist bombings in 2002, the Asian tsunami of 2005 and the Victorian bushfires of 2009.
His presence on this exercise gave participants access to knowledge and real experience in this field. Tony was able to give practical advice into procedure and also offer wisdom into the thought processes of a DVI operative.
“In a real DVI investigation the experience will be subtly mind shifting, things that were once of much importance will fade into insignificance in the overall order of life.
“Once you have been involved in a DVI investigation you realise that you no longer work for a nation, government or community – you are working for families who are struggling to bring resolution to circumstances they cannot control or comprehend.”
Tony had just returned from Indonesia and the Pacific where he was involved in the teaching of DVI standards and protocols within the region, so his involvement, as an observer in this exercise, was timely and opportune.
“The supervisors are to be congratulated on formalising a course that was not only realistic in its presentation but had a practical component that brought together the essential elements of the DVI investigation; Teamwork, detailed investigation skills and continuing quality assurance procedures” Tony Hill said.
The scenario for the trainees in Phase 1 was a two vehicle crash on a remote road in the Australian outback. The collision and resultant explosion had scattered a debris field over 100 metres in diameter.
Four victims in one vehicle and two in the other were confirmed deceased.
First responders had extinguished fires and rendered the crash scene safe. It was now up to the DVI teams to move in and retrieve vital evidence.
Exercise participants were divided into teams with a mix of instructors, advisors and inductees who were drilled in their rolls and time allowed on the ground as per established, international operating procedure.
Teams rotated through the scene taking on different roles as they went, both to gain appreciation for what others would be doing and to experience what is required for their own specialised skill set.
Simulated body parts as small as teeth had to be found, marked, mapped and ultimately recovered. Clothing, jewellery, shoes and car parts were tagged and mapped in situ as the teams moved in and out all day.
As the process ran its course and items were gathered, stored and prepared for the second Phase of the exercise participants were exposed to birds and ants competing for the remains, heat and the constant move in – move out rosters.
The exercise was designed to test both the stamina and repetitive nature of a DVI scenario, to drill into the operatives the step by step procedure, the recording of every bit of evidence, what it was and where was it found.
“The scene highlighted the difficulties confronting investigators; evidence gathering, protection and storage, body recovery, photography, documentation and quality assurance protocols.
It also presented command structure difficulties, on scene problem solving and the need for close teamwork.” Tony Hill said.
The exercise then moved into Phase 2 where a fully operational mortuary was set up to receive and collate gathered body remains and evidence.
“We had never attempted this stage of the exercise before so it was pretty special,” SC Burnell said. “We had only theorised what we would do, so to be able to put it into practice with the help of our experienced instructors, it was extremely worthwhile for everyone on the exercise.”
With everyone now familiar with the endless forms and documentation the scene flowed through the process seamlessly. Items of clothing were matched with their respective victims, body parts were reunited and the specialised skills of dentists, anthropologists and pathologists came to the fore.
“We were now in a position for formal identification and to allow the families to re-claim their loved ones.” SC Burnell said.
DS/SGT Currie said the exercise had the desired result that there were now another core group of professionals who could be called upon should the need arise.
“We hope they have taken away with them an appreciation of the importance of victim identification to the families and the communities affected by a disaster. We trust they now have a better understanding of the role they will play in DVI, new and improved skill set and appreciation for the DVI process.”
Acting Commander Tony Fuller is the Deputy Chair of the ANZPAA DVI committee (Australia New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency) and Commander of the Disaster Victim Identification Team in the Northern Territory.
He said that having an International presence on the exercise gave local participants an excellent opportunity to forge professional and personal relationships with representatives from both Hong Kong and Indonesia.
“The Indonesians in particular are very well practiced in DVI having suffered many man-made and natural disasters. Australia has forged strong ties with Indonesia through DVI workshops held as joint Australian Federal Police and Indonesian Law Enforcement exercises.
“Situated where we are it is logical our local teams would be best placed to respond to any call for assistance or if Australians have been involved in a disaster.
“In return, should there be an incident here, we would be able to call on other jurisdictions, nationally and from overseas, who will be able to assist and work to internationally accepted protocols and standards. It is a comforting feeling in times of great stress that there are experienced people that will help without question.
“To have the national and international response all on the same page means we can get in and get the job done as a co-ordinated effort.”
Acting Commander Fuller said the Australian Federal Police were great partners and were influential in their assistance for this exercise.
“They have without hesitation provided expert trainers when required and their knowledge of Interpol requirements and experience in this field added greatly to the involvement of all participants.”
Tony Hill said the dentists who were on the exercise under the guidance of Mark Leedham have been training for some time to increase their knowledge of DVI standards and protocols.
“Mark has been the Senior Forensic Odontologist for the NT Police and the NT Coroner, he has now formed dental teams, including members from Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Katherine who will be able to assist when, and if required.
“The experience they gained on this exercise in completing Interpol forms, Police command structure at the scene, examination and body recovery, protection and preservation of evidence and the role of the dentist in the mortuary will be invaluable.
“To set up a fully functional mortuary in under two hours demonstrated what pre-planning and preparation can achieve. All attendees benefited from seeing the manner in which the mortuary was constructed and the eventual, logical flow of deceased persons through this phase of the DVI investigation. The role of the Police personnel in data gathering, transcription, and the use of the Interpol forms, proved both practical and realistic.”
Tony Hill finished with a comment from his own experiences;
“To those of you who will be called on to be part of a DVI investigation; your investigative skills, teamwork and professionalism will result in resolution and ‘closure’ for families. You will become part of an elite group of men and women who have had the privilege of successfully reuniting families with their missing family members.”
Senior Constable Bindi Burnell was reflective as she contemplated her own role within the NT Police and her role as a DVI volunteer should tragedy strike.
“DVI makes you feel like you are part of a process which has meaning and is important. Assisting with identifying a loved one and in turn that loved one being returned to their grieving families is both a humbling and powerful experience.”