Civil emergencies

Recovery of the deceased and human remains

If there are deceased people at the scene, a medical doctor, pathologist or appropriately qualified paramedic should attend to pronounce life extinct. Deceased persons and human remains should not be removed from the scene until authorised by the coroner.

A written audit account must be made of:

  • the person(s) who undertook the examination
  • the actions they took
  • who pronounced life extinct
  • when this was done.

Managers must monitor the physical, emotional and psychological welfare of their staff when attending an incident.

Scene evidence recovery manager

The scene evidence recovery manager (SERM) is a police coordinator responsible for the recovery of deceased persons and human remains on behalf of the coroner or procurator fiscal and the senior identification manager (SIM).

The SERM assumes control within the inner cordon from the fire and rescue scene commander. A police search adviser or a specialist health and safety adviser should be consulted, if appropriate.

The SERM may establish a:

The SERM is responsible for:

  • ensuring that the inner cordon is clearly delineated and secure
  • agreeing access and documentation for the inner cordon
  • deploying specialist personnel (for example, to work in confined spaces, work safely at height) and equipment
  • briefing the victim recovery teams on the identification strategy.

Operational plan (SERM plan)

The SERM develops an operational plan for the recovery of the deceased, human remains, property and evidence. The plan should be approved by the SIM and senior investigating officer (SIO).

It contains:

  • a risk assessment of the scene
  • the health and safety procedures to be adopted (including personal protective equipment)
  • details for establishing a holding audit area (HAA) for the deceased persons and human remains
  • a property and evidence audit area.

Health and safety adviser

Prior to the handover of the scene to the police, a qualified health and safety professional, who may be provided by the fire and rescue service, should conduct a process of risk, security and health and safety assessments. This person should hold a relevant qualification that is recognised by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.

A health and safety advisory cell may be convened to assess the health and safety implications of recovering the deceased persons and human remains from the scene and subsequent mortuary operations, and provide clear and consistent advice.

A risk assessment and safe system of work, including a method statement, should be completed in writing and agreed by the scene evidence recovery manager prior to the deployment of police personnel. This should include potential hazards such as:

  • fire
  • the partial or total collapse of buildings
  • smoke, fumes or airborne particles
  • the presence of asbestos or other man-made mineral fibres in the area
  • liquids, including toxic by-products of the incident
  • debris fields, uneven surfaces and hidden voids
  • sharp and jagged debris
  • inclement weather
  • manual lifting handling arrangements
  • psychological, stress and trauma risk
  • bodily fluids.

Holding audit area

The HAA is often a temporary structure where deceased persons and human remains retrieved from the scene of a major incident can be taken initially, pending transfer to a designated mortuary.

An HAA is usually established and located just outside the inner cordon. Where there are multiple scenes, or the scene covers an extensive area, more than one HAA may be established. In maritime incidents an HAA could be established at each of the seaports and airports at which deceased people will be taken following retrieval from the scene.

An HAA may need to be established prior to the appointment of a senior identification manager or the formation of a mass fatality coordination group (MFCG). In these circumstances the police silver commander takes responsibility for the establishment of an HAA. A police victim recovery team should be deployed immediately to the HAA, with the team leader acting as a bronze commander.

The fire and rescue service silver commander should be advised of the HAA and the circumstances under which deceased persons or human remains should be taken there.

Access to the HAA should be restricted. A log must be kept of the name and role of every individual who enters and exits, along with the reasons for access and the time. The number of personnel deployed to an HAA is determined by the number of fatalities. A dedicated exhibits officer may be necessary.

Scene evidence recovery group

This group includes:


The INTERPOL disaster victim recovery form is used to document the recovery of deceased persons and human remains. The online INTERPOL disaster victim recovery form may be used where hard copy disaster victim recovery booklets are unavailable.

The disaster victim recovery form contains a unique reference number and a bar code and scene notes. The booklet also contains labels with the same bar code on them to ensure continuity. Labels comprise of:

  • audit labels
  • bag labels for deceased persons or human remains
  • scene labels
  • item labels for deceased person or human remains.

Police victim recovery teams should be trained to use the forms prior to deployment. One form must be used for each deceased person or human remains.

Victim recovery teams

Personnel used to recover deceased persons from a scene of an emergency or major incident should have completed an ACPO approved disaster victim identification (DVI) foundation course, or an equivalent training programme.

Victim recovery teams work under the scene evidence recovery manager and have a designated team leader. They may also work in conjunction with search teams. They may require additional training to work:

  • in confined spaces performing confined area searches
  • safely at height
  • under chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) conditions.

Victim recovery teams are responsible for:

  • recovering all victims in accordance with the ACPO approved training standard
  • working according to the recovery strategy set by the senior identification manager
  • completing all necessary disaster victim recovery documentation
  • completing the initial visual check on deceased persons and human remains and recording all identification details revealed
  • ensuring that all necessary photographs are taken at the scene
  • complying with all health and safety requirements.

Searches of scenes

The scene evidence recovery manager establishes the number of victim recovery teams required to conduct recovery actions within the timescales and parameters set by the senior identification manager and gold commander.

The SERM may be advised by a:

  • police search adviser on search matters, recovery of deceased, property or evidence
  • crime scene manager on forensic and evidential recovery procedures.

The victim recovery teams may be deployed as stand-alone teams, or may operate in conjunction with police search trained personnel or other search personnel. Searches can be either open area or confined area.

Open area searches

The scene evidence recovery manager can initially deploy search teams or victim recovery teams in a sweep type search to cover larger areas with few deceased persons or human remains scattered across the area.

The scene may be divided into sectors and zones. Each zone should consist of channels of a suitable length and width for a victim recovery team to operate along, taking into account the terrain and nature of the incident. Where the deceased or human remains are concentrated, the width of the search channel needs to be reduced. Each channel should have a start and stop position clearly identified. Both edges of the channel should be marked by orange tape.

When deceased persons or human remains (including suspected human remains) are located, the team leader should consider asking a doctor or another expert to examine the person or remains. A member of the victim recovery team may then conduct an initial visual check of the deceased. The team’s documentation officer or team leader commences the audit trail on the disaster victim recovery form, using the approved label with the unique reference number and bar code. This is recorded alongside the deceased or human remains while they are still in situ. Any personal property on or near the deceased or human remains is also recorded in situ to provide context of the find.

Confined area searches

The victim recovery team may be deployed in two pairs or work as a team of four. When working in a pair, one member can underake the search and recovery while the other acts as a monitor to ensure the health and safety of the officer conducting the retrieval. The team leader may rotate pairs or larger teams in difficult situations, or deploy them together as appropriate to the circumstances.

Recovery actions

There are five aspects of recovery from a scene:

  • the recovery of deceased persons
  • the recovery of human remains
  • the recovery of personal property
  • the recovery of evidential property
  • the recovery of technical property (items that may be required for any technical enquiry being conducted by the Health and Safety Executive, AAIB, RAIB, MAIB or other organisation).

Where more than one aspect applies, the senior identification manager, senior investigating officer and lead investigator (or their representatives) must liaise and agree how that item is to be treated and who will take responsibility for it, its retention and disposal.

The recovery of deceased persons or human remains

When deceased persons or human remains are located, a member of the victim recovery team should conduct an initial visual check to note any obvious evidence that may help to identify the deceased.

The situation of the deceased is recorded in situ. The team’s documentation officer or team leader commences the audit trail on the disaster victim recovery form. This information is recorded alongside the deceased or human remains while they are still in situ. Any personal property on or near the deceased or human remains is also recorded in situ to provide context about the find.

The recovery of personal property

Subject to the policy of the SIO and SIM, personal property found on deceased persons, for example, in their pockets, is to be retrieved with that person and not documented separately. Items of property lying on, alongside or nearby a deceased person are to be treated as separate items and recorded as such.

There may be personal property on deceased persons or human remains that offers evidence of potential identity, for example, obvious identification documentation. These items should be photographed with the body, giving the position in which they were seen on the body. The item may be removed for checking. A detailed record of the information given and location of the item should be made in the disaster victim recovery form, scene notes section. These items should be recovered with the deceased, placed in a clear property bag and physically attached to the deceased within the same body bag. A photographic record of the process should be made.

This information will be used by the casualty bureau (CB) to apply the correct grading to a missing person record. Where possible identity is established, it is likely that a family liaison officer (FLO) will be allocated to the family of the deceased to begin ante-mortem procedures.


Retrieval of the deceased at sea

This is led by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. If police underwater search teams (who are not DVI trained) are used to recover deceased or human remains from inland waterways, a DVI trained person should act as a tactical adviser.

A single landing site should be used to allow documentation to be completed in line with the DVI process. The documentation should be completed by the police team at the designated holding audit area. To ensure continuity national documentation should be used to record details.

Police victim recovery teams should be sent to the designated landing location(s) to establish an HAA and assume responsibility for deceased persons and human remains. The HAA should be located close to a helicopter landing site where possible.

Retrieval of personal property

The senior evidence recovery manager should agree a protocol with the senior identification manager and SIO for roles and responsibilities of recovery teams.

The INTERPOL disaster victim recovery form is not designed to be used for personal property. An exhibits schedule should be used instead.

The SIM should develop a policy for the retrieval of personal property, including the documentation and audit trail required. This policy should include whether a separate property exhibits officer is appointed to assume responsibility for items retrieved from the scene of a mass fatality incident. Only items found on deceased persons should accompany them to the mortuary. Other property, including property found lying on top of a person, should be treated as a separate item and recorded as such.

Retrieval of evidence

This is usually the responsibility of the SIO. The SIO and SIM should agree a protocol for the retrieval of evidence, including when it will be carried out in relation to the retrieval of deceased persons, human remains and the recovery of personal property.

Separate documentation and audit trails are required for the retrieval of evidence, and dedicated exhibits officers should be appointed.

Subsequent death of an injured victim

Subject to a decision by coroner in consultation with the SIO and SIM, where an injured victim subsequently dies of their injuries, the body should be transferred to the designated police mortuary for the incident. This allows for consistent management of the deceased, and supports the process of identification and investigation. By channelling all fatalities through a single mortuary facility, the police and health services are able to support the bereaved by offering them a range of dedicated facilities.

Where a casualty dies in hospital, the bereaved must be made aware of procedure and kept informed at each stage of the process, including:

Page last accessed 23 July 2018