A Call for National Standards for Fatality Management

Jul 15, 2021

In November 2001, at the ripe old age of 29, and with 5 years on the job as a police constable, I found myself attending the 8-week Forensic Identification Course at the Canadian Police College (CPC) in Ottawa. My passion prior to policing was forensic archaeology and human remains recovery – the world of Ident was incredibly intriguing.

Our cohort was about to be dismissed for a 7-day ‘reading break’. Anyone who has been on the Ident course knows that you truly need that time off in order to decompress from the insane workload. You need to hit the reset button to prepare for the latter half of the course.

As I was packing up for my week away, the call came in. It was my boss. He asked if I wanted to meet in New York to shadow the recovery operations at Ground Zero.

My heart launched into my throat, but I was on a plane to NY within 4 hours. The week that followed would change the trajectory of my professional career.

Being on site at Ground Zero was a stark and humbling introduction to the science of disaster victim identification (DVI) and the discipline of fatality management.

The complexity of the scene, the state of the human remains and the impact of the psychosocial repercussions experienced by the families and the responders was, to be candid, overwhelming.

This formidable scene became my baseline for disaster. Everything I take on now is ruthlessly compared to this one event – 9/11 is my litmus.

Post-New York, the last 4 weeks of the Ident course were a complete blur. In the months and years that followed, I spent a lot of time reflecting. I started to question what my ‘Why’ was in life. I also began to wonder if I had lost my path. The Pickton Pig Farm in British Columbia happened around this time, and was a tragic distraction for a short while.

Over the Christmas holidays of 2004 I chose change and, soon after, turned in my badge. It was the hardest thing I ever did.

In 2005, I left policing and was appointed as a Coroner for the Province of British Columbia. My ‘Why’ became clearer and I was to become a fierce advocate for disaster victim identification (DVI) and proper mass fatality management planning in Canada. I initiated the BC DVI Taskforce, launched and co-chaired the National Fatality Management Working Group, and postured for “DVI Canada” (akin to UK DVI, for example). Other advances included developing a Provincial Mass Fatality Response Plan for BC, establishing fatality management policies and procedures for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver, and managing the heart-breaking death of the Georgian luger athlete.

Engaging in every project I could find that involved fatality management and DVI, I was on a mission. I even did my Master of Arts Degree in Disaster and Emergency Management and focused my research on ethical considerations in fatality management. My colleagues endearingly called me the “Diva of Death”. I even had a T-shirt with rhinestone DD’s made-up at one point, but I digress.

Clearly, I had found “my Why”. The question that remained was: “Am I actually making a difference related to fatality management planning in Canada?”

Tick-tock. 2013. Two lovely children and a lot of life lessons later, I took a hiatus from the crazy on-call life. I left the Coroners Service. My kids helped me grow in ways I didn’t know were possible and for that great gift, I am eternally grateful. Having another meaningful “Why” in my life re-energized me for the next leg of my professional journey.

Tick-tock. 2018. The road led me back to policing and back to DVI – and to the incredible support and mentoring from three formidable people: Dr. David Sweet OC, Graham Sunderland QPM, and Derek Forest OBE. These gentlemen have taught me how to sharpen my blade. They have given me strength to take on my “Why”, and I am forever indebted.

Fatality Management Planning
Disaster Victim Identification (DVI)

As the current Emergency Planning Policy Advisor at the Vancouver Police Depart­ment, I am well positioned to fight the battle and promote DVI.

The reason for introducing myself to you first is so you can feel the passion for what has become my “Why”. Mass casualty and mass fatality incident response planning is now at the forefront of my project load.

My motivation for writing this article is to ‘hook you’ by piquing your interest about fatality management and DVI. Did you even know that fatality management planning and response is a thing – a very necessary thing – that needs attention across this country? We aren’t doing a very good job at domestic mass fatality management in Canada. We need to do better.

Fatality management is too often what I call the forgotten sphere of emergency management. Very few people truly understand its scope – and those who do, are hyper-aware of the complexities and barriers that come with trying to promote it. Advocating for something like DVI and fatality management planning too often falls on deaf ears in Canada because, quite frankly, it’s not a topic of sunshine and roses. Supporting this type of portfolio will not bolster your election campaign.

Nobody wants to talk about death. The public doesn’t want to hear it, politicians don’t want to acknowledge it, and quite honestly, most folks figure that if we don’t look Old Man Death in the eye, he will leave us all alone. Let me assure you, he will one day show up with his sharp scythe to unleash what he does best. We are not immune. Disasters happen and people die. It’s a sad fact, but is no excuse to sideline fatality management.

Would it surprise you to hear that the domestic fatality management portfolio isn’t covered by any federal department? That responsibility falls solely to the provinces and territories through the various Coroner or Medical Examiner systems (and the associated provincial/territorial legislation). As such, there is no national standard for fatality management and no federal commitment to support the logistics of a large-scale domestic response.

Authorities across the country need to be ready for mass tragedy and mass death. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

A Word About Missions

Interestingly, people often reference the term ‘mass casualty incident’ but not ‘mass fatality incident’. These terms are not the same, they have different responses by virtue of their missions. Let me explain.

A Mass Casualty Incident (MCI) may involve significant numbers of injured victims (there may also be dead victims but let’s omit this for now). A Mass Fatality Incident (MFI), on the other hand involves significant numbers of dead victims.

When police respond to an MCI, the primary objective in the initial response phase is to mitigate the threat with the intention to preserve and save lives. We then need to triage victims and track them to trauma centres. We need to reunite friends and family members with the victims affected by the incident. The response is multi-faceted and very complex.

In a Mass Fatality Incident, the primary objective is to identify the dead and repatriate the bodies/remains back to the next-of-kin. Of course, the identification process becomes more complex when the remains are compromised and must be identified via fingerprints, DNA or dental records. In fatality management, we are not dealing with survivors, we are concerned with processing the dead. The disaster victim identification process and overarching fatality management response, is also multi-faceted and complex.

The quandary of these two missions is evident when we have an MCI with fatalities. This means we essentially have two missions within one incident that require different types of responses. This is the important concept that most of us fail to grasp.

When we have a combined MCI/MFI, the work needs to be performed in tandem, but we must bifurcate the missions based on management objectives. In any disaster or incident, saving lives is the first priority; dealing with fatalities must come second.

The manner in which fatalities are processed is prescribed and systematic; it is a specialty unto itself. To bring this point home, it is important to note that the family members of the living should not be treated the same as family members of the decedents. Where one family may be hoping for injury recovery, the other family is grieving a tragic death. We must be mindful of the different needs of those affected by an MCI and/or an MFI.

We must ensure that there is a victim-focused lens for both missions. This is key.

At this point in our dialogue, someone states that it’s all just one big incident and the necessary work will “just get done”. To this I say, “Show me your mass fatality response plan” – and maybe then I’ll have faith that the fatality management aspect will be carried out according to the appropriate rules of engagement.

Above all else, it is an honour and a privilege when afforded the sad opportunity to be the voice for the dead and their families following a MFI. When we focus on caring for the dead, as we do for the living, we ensure that we are reducing societal suffering.

Fatality management and DVI work isn’t for everyone, but not having the aptitude isn’t an excuse for our leaders to neglect or under-resource it. Failure to properly execute a fatality management mission is not an option.

Like from the mythological Pandora’s box, knowledge has been released. You cannot unread this article – the previously ignored is visible. It only becomes a curse if we do nothing. It is only troublesome if we fail to acknowledge the mission.

So I ask: Are you hooked?

Karen Collins is the Emergency Planning Policy Advisor – Major Events Unit – Emergency & Operational Planning Section for the Vancouver Police Department.