Civil emergencies

Disaster victim identification

An emergency or major incident may result in fatalities. The processes and procedures for recovering and identifying deceased persons and human remains, and the support that is given to family and friends during the identification process, is known as disaster victim identification (DVI).

DVI takes place concurrently with investigations into the cause of an incident and any criminal culpability arising from it. DVI principles are subject to international agreement through INTERPOL, which maintains a command centre and a crisis management support group. In the event of a mass fatality incident in a member country, INTERPOL coordinates the international response.


Deceased persons refers to anyone who is readily identifiable as a deceased human being  and is still intact. If any limb is severed, albeit lying alongside a deceased torso, it is to be retrieved as separate human remains.

Human remains is any part of a deceased human body or fragment which has come from a human body. Human remains can range from limbs to small fragments of human flesh.

Incidents may be categorised as:

  • open incidents – where the number and details of the deceased are not known at the time the incident is declared and this information cannot be easily ascertained. There is likely to be early high demand for information from family and friends reporting people missing.
  • closed incidents – where the provisional number and details of the deceased can be easily obtained. Ante-mortem evidence can be collected at an early stage and the involvement of other people can be provisionally discounted.

Senior identification manager

The senior identification manager (SIM) is responsible for managing the DVI elements on behalf of the police service.

The gold commander appoints the SIM where there are fatalities, or there is an expectation of fatalities. It is a police role and SIMs must have attended the national accredited SIM course.

SIM responsibilities include:

  • consulting with the senior investigating officer (SIO) and actioning the DVI process
  • liaising with the coroner or procurator fiscal
  • setting a casualty bureau (CB) strategy
  • setting a communications strategy in consultation with gold, silver and the SIO
  • setting involvement gradings, including SIM questions
  • setting a misper cancellation policy
  • briefing and debriefing
  • quality assuring protocols, procedures and functionality
  • establishing a family liaison strategy for obtaining ante-mortem data
  • keeping the next of kin informed throughout the investigation and identification process
  • managing and assessing risk
  • submitting ante-mortem and post-mortem data to the Identification Commission in respect of casualties
  • establishing effective protocols for information sharing that are in line with the gold strategy
  • establishing a policy book or file for recording all policy decisions
  • appointing a CB manager who is trained and competent in managing and implementing the CB strategy
  • appointing at least two experienced family liaison coordinators
  • managing health, safety and welfare issues
  • considering the appointment of trained DVI managers such as scene evidence recovery manager (SERM), police mortuary operations coordinator (PMOC) and reconciliation manager.

Health and safety

Recommended vaccination profile

A recommended vaccination profile has been agreed for all DVI staff.

Category 1 – baseline immunisation list for all UK DVI staff deployed on UK DVI operations:

  • diphtheria/tetanus/polio (every ten years)
  • typhoid (every three years)
  • hepatitis A (two lifetime doses)
  • hepatitis B
    • choice of rapid or standard course followed by blood test
    • booster required every five years if blood levels of antigen have dropped
  • TB/BCG.

Category 2 – baseline immunisation list for UK DVI international response:

  • rabies (three doses then three yearly boosters)
  • meningitis (five yearly)
  • cholera (two yearly)
  • flu (annually – no year round risk in tropics)
  • yellow fever (every ten years)
  • Japanese encephalitis (three doses required for immunity every 1-3 years depending on make of vaccine)
  • tick encephalitis (every three years).

A specific deployment risk assessment is required, prior to any deployment, to verify pre-deployment immunisation and other prophylaxis medication, eg, anti-malarial.

The force occupational health department should assess any individual who cannot achieve this immunisation status, to ascertain their suitability to support international response operations.

Mass fatality incident

Is an emergency or major incident where the number of fatalities necessitates using the DVI process.

National planning for a mass fatality response is coordinated centrally by the emergency preparedness fatalities team in the Home Office and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office.

The decision to declare a mass fatality incident lies jointly with HM Coroner or the procurator fiscal and the gold commander. The chief executive of relevant local authorities must also be consulted when reaching a decision. As soon as a decision is made to declare a mass fatality incident, a mass fatality coordination group (MFCG) should be formed.

Where the police respond to a mass fatality incident, the gold commander assumes overall command and has ultimate responsibility and accountability for the police response. The gold commander chairs the strategic coordinating group (SCG).

Deciding to declare a mass fatality incident

This may be influenced by a number of factors including:

  • the number of deceased (actual or potential)
  • whether the nature of the incident is likely to make identification of the deceased difficult
  • whether any or many of the deceased are lying in difficult to access locations
  • whether there are fragmented human remains
  • whether the incident was as a result of terrorist or criminal activity
  • if any hazards are present at the scene, for example, asbestos, chemicals, radiological debris, that need to be taken into account before recovering the deceased, property and evidence
  • whether suitable and sustainable mortuary capacity (for as long as is likely to be required) is available.


In England and Wales coroners are appointed and funded by local authorities for specified areas. In Northern Ireland they are appointed by the Lord Chancellor as part of the Coroners Service for Northern Ireland. In Scotland the role lies with the procurator fiscal. The coroner is responsible for chairing the identification commission, where the identity of the deceased is confirmed.

A coroner conducts an inquest into the death of a person within their area where they have reasonable cause to suspect that the deceased has died:

  • a violent or unnatural death
  • a sudden death of which the cause is unknown
  • in prison or in such place, or in such circumstances that require an inquest under legislation.

It is the responsibility of a coroner to establish the identity of the deceased and how, when and where the death occurred. They have the power to:

  • take lawful possession and control of deceased persons or human remains from the time the death is reported until all enquiries are complete
  • authorise the removal of the deceased from their place of death to a mortuary
  • authorise a post-mortem examination
  • authorise specialist examinations as part of a post-mortem examination.

When HM Coroner or the procurator fiscal declares a mass fatality incident, they may convene a mass fatality coordination group.

Procurator fiscal

In Scotland this is the public official responsible for the investigation of all sudden, suspicious and unexplained deaths. The procurator fiscal is also responsible for investigating the circumstances and cause of death and, if necessary, instructing a post-mortem examination.

Under Scottish law, the procurator fiscal may undertake a fatal accident inquiry into such accidents. This is a form of judicial inquiry that is similar to an inquest but conducted without a jury.

Mass fatality coordination group

This group coordinates the DVI process on behalf of the gold commander and HM Coroner or the procurator fiscal. It allows sensitive matters regarding the deceased to be discussed outside the strategic coordinating group, and tactical and operational matters to be discussed at an appropriate forum.

Members of the MFCG can include:

The MFCG may be chaired by a coroner, procurator fiscal or the SIM. The SIM and the coroner or procurator fiscal can represent the MFCG at the SCG.


Training is required to support personnel and procedures, and all relevant agencies should be involved in a programme of exercises.

Each local resilience forum should have an exercise programme that includes the response to a mass fatality incident. It may not be practicable or financially viable to cover the full DVI process in one exercise, but police forces should be able to show that they have tested all aspects of a mass fatality response within a reasonable timescale.

In addition to formal training and exercising, and to remain current in the area of DVI, all personnel who may be involved in the response to a mass fatality incident should pursue continuous professional development.

Multi-agency response

Agencies which may be involved in the response to a mass fatality incident in the UK and abroad include:

Local authorities

These may have agreements with the private sector to support the response to a mass fatality incident. Where they exist, the arrangements should be incorporated into local or regional mass fatality plans.

Local authorities are responsible for providing:

  • an executive officer to attend the strategic coordinating group
  • immediate shelter and welfare support for survivors at a survivors reception centre
  • emergency mortuary capability should existing mortuary provision be exceeded
  • inspection of dangerous structures to ensure that they are safe for emergency personnel to enter
  • support for traffic management
  • emergency transport facilities
  • public information about the emergency and assistance with the media response
  • medium to long-term welfare of survivors and bereaved (eg, setting up a humanitarian assistance centre and social services support)
  • specialist environmental and public health advice
  • coordination of the activities of the voluntary sector agencies involved and spontaneous volunteers
  • facilities for waste disposal and facilitation of the remediation and reoccupation of affected sites or areas
  • assistance in organising plant, demolition and site clearance facilities
  • emergency accommodation and care for the displaced or homeless.

Fire and rescue service

The role of the fire and rescue service in an emergency or major incident is to rescue those trapped by fire, wreckage or debris. They may also support the recovery of deceased persons and human remains. The fire and rescue service has an urban search and rescue capability. They can assist in recovering the deceased and human remains from constricted sites, collapsed buildings or from the wreckage of transport incidents.

Humanitarian assistance centre

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is responsible for humanitarian assistance in the event of an emergency or major incident. The department:

  • provides aftercare for the survivors and bereaved relatives
  • coordinates a cross-government approach to financial support for survivors and bereaved relatives
  • arranges memorial services for victims of major incidents, for all faiths and communities
  • coordinates a longer-term strategy to help individuals and communities respond to major incidents and the threat of disaster.

Dealing with contaminated bodies

There are potential health risks for the recovery of fatalities when the incident involves the possible presence of contaminating agents on or around deceased persons or human remains.

The lead pathologist may be able to advise the senior identification manager on chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) specific identification methods, eg, whole body bag CT scanning.

When a mass fatality is identified as a CBRN incident, the scientific and technical advice cell (STAC) should be formed to provide health and safety advice to the strategic coordinating group and the mass fatality coordination group.

The process for CBRN mass fatality incidents focuses on placing the deceased or human remains in a body bag at the scene and limiting contact and exposure throughout the recovery, post-mortem procedures and identification procedures.

Police commanders should consider additional issues in the recovery of contaminated fatalities and human remains from mass fatality incidents.

Recovery of contaminated fatalities

Police commanders should ensure that:

  • body recovery in a contaminated environment is only carried out by personnel who are trained and equipped to respond to a CBRN incident
  • trained CBRN personnel undertake the scene assessment and recovery of personal property
  • trained CBRN personnel undertake the police roles within the mortuary environment
  • precautions are taken to ensure that health and safety risks to those involved in responding to the incident are adequately controlled
  • the spread of contamination from the hot zone is limited
  • contaminated fatalities are identified and sensitively managed through burial, cremation or other arrangement in a way which avoids harm to others or the environment
  • the needs of the bereaved families are taken into account in the DVI process, without jeopardising the safety of the family or other responders involved in the process.


Reconciliation is the process by which data, collected during ante-mortem procedures, is analysed against the data collected during post-mortem procedures in order to identify the deceased and reunite dismembered parts of the same human body.

Reconciliation manager

This is an investigator with knowledge of both the DVI process and forensic techniques. They may have a team of people, including specialists, who are independent of the data collection processes.

The role of the reconciliation manager is to:

Reconciliation process

The senior identification manager enters issues pertinent to the reconciliation process into their policy book or file. These include the:

The reconciliation manager should be in frequent contact with the ante-mortem manager and the CB manager to ensure that information is passed between the two teams.

The post-mortem manager (or police mortuary operations coordinator) also provides the reconciliation investigation unit with relevant information regarding the examinations of the deceased.

The reconciliation manager should ensure that procedures are in place to make provisional identifications as soon as possible. The SIM should have a policy on:

  • the information that will be provided to families and friends at which stage of the identification process, and
  • on the issue of early provisional identification criteria (possible, probable and established match).

The SIM determines the criteria that are required for each of these three levels, and records this in their policy book or file. These criteria are agreed with the coroner or procurator fiscal.


This computer application is authorised for use by UK police forces to assist in the analysis of data collected during ante-mortem and post-mortem procedures. Information obtained during the ante-mortem process should be entered from the yellow ante-mortem forms and pink post-mortem forms.

Provisional matches are brought to the immediate attention of the reconciliation manager, who then determines the appropriate action to take in response to that match.

Reconciliation investigation unit

This unit collates and matches data collected during post-mortem procedures with data collected during ante-mortem procedures, following a mass fatality incident. It processes textual and scientific data to support identification.

The core functions of the unit include:

Reconciliation files

The reconciliation manager is responsible for preparing reconciliation files on behalf of the senior identification manager for presentation at the Identification Commission.

The headings of a reconciliation file include:

  • family name of the deceased
  • forenames of the deceased
  • name by which known to family and friends
  • date of birth
  • place of birth
  • nationality
  • missing person nominal number(s)
  • disaster victim number(s).

The report usually comprises five sections.


  • should include the purpose of the report and a brief background into the circumstances by which the deceased became involved in the mass fatality incident
  • the place the deceased was last seen, information about their personal circumstances and brief information about who reported the deceased missing may be included.

Primary identification evidence

  • summarises the type of evidence used to make the provisional identification and how the match was achieved
  • should name the person making the provisional identification and their role within the DVI process.

Secondary identification evidence

  • summarises the type of evidence used to make the secondary identification and how the match was achieved
  • should name the person making the secondary identification and their role within the DVI process.

Supporting evidence


  • the level of identification achieved and the view of the reconciliation manager on the effectiveness of that identification
  • each report must be signed by the reconciliation manager and countersigned by the SIM.

Identification Commission

The Identification Commission functions as a matching centre. It assesses the details of missing persons provided by the casualty bureau, together with data obtained during ante-mortem and post-mortem procedures, using a four-stage commission procedure.

Membership may include:

Commission procedures

Stage one – connect the post-mortem data on the deceased with the name and details of a missing person provided by the ante-mortem process.

Stage two – the post-mortem data suggests there is possibly a match between a deceased person and the name and details of a missing person provided by secondary identifier evidence obtained by the ante-mortem process.

Stage three – the post-mortem data suggests there is a probable match between a deceased person and the name and details of a missing person provided by primary identifier evidence obtained by the ante-mortem process.

Stage four – a match between a deceased person and the name and details of a missing person provided by the ante-mortem process.

The certification form is used and each relevant forensic expert signs to indicate that identification is either: possible, probable, established or not made. If established, the identification is certified by the chair of the Identification Commission.

Only after stage four and formal identification by the Identification Commission should the family liaison officer be notified and the bereaved informed of the identification.

At stage four, the coroner or procurator fiscal publicly open an inquest in respect of each of the deceased and hear evidence to confirm the identity of the deceased person(s). The coroner or procurator fiscal may then consider releasing the deceased to their next of kin for burial or cremation, and issue the necessary authority for this.


Once a deceased person has been formally identified, the coroner or procurator fiscal orders the formal release and repatriation of the deceased person or human remains to the agreed next of kin.

The family liaison officer determines the wishes of the family and/or bereaved regarding repatriation of the deceased person and their personal property. This information is then given to the coroner or procurator fiscal and the senior identification manager.

If the deceased is a foreign national, the deceased person’s embassy or consul may advise on the repatriation officer of the wishes of the next of kin.

There are strict international rules in respect of the carriage of a deceased person or human remains abroad. An undertaker with the necessary experience should be consulted and, if appropriate, they should complete the necessary forms and procedures on behalf of the repatriation officer and the next of kin.


The purpose of an inquest under the Coroners Act 1988 is to hear the evidence relating to an investigation into the death of a person, and for the jury (or coroner where there is no jury) to determine:

  • who the deceased was
  • when, where and by what means they came by their death
  • the details required to register the death.

The coroner and the jury are able to express only an opinion on the matters included within the purpose of the investigation and inquest.

A similar process, known as a fatal accident inquiry (FAI), is held in Scotland under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976.

Fatal accident inquiries

In Scotland the procurator fiscal carries out an investigation to determine whether there are circumstances that suggest the death may have been caused as a result of a criminal act or omission and, if not, whether the death has occurred in circumstances where a discretionary FAI is appropriate. An inquiry may be held in other cases of sudden, suspicious or unexplained death, or death in circumstances that cause serious public concern. Decisions on whether these discretionary inquiries are held are made by the Lord Advocate.

An FAI is essentially a fact-finding exercise carried out in the public interest. Its purpose is not to apportion blame for the death, but to determine:

  • where and when the death took place
  • the cause of the death
  • reasonable precautions whereby the death might have been avoided
  • the defects, if any, in any system of working which contributed to the death or any accident resulting in the death
  • other facts relevant to the circumstances of the death.

FAI recommendations are made by sheriffs at the conclusion of the inquiry.

Judicial inquiries

Other judicial and quasi-judicial inquiries may take place to determine the cause and consequences of a mass fatality incident, and review the manner in which the agencies involved in the response conducted themselves.

These inquiries can include a:

  • central government sponsored public inquiry
  • local government sponsored public inquiry
  • criminal trial against an individual or corporate body.

The usual aim of a public inquiry is to:

  • identify information that can be used to improve future responses
  • make recommendations to reduce the likelihood of a similar scenario occurring.

Page last accessed 22 July 2018