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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Planning to Help Communities Find Closure

Author: Elizabeth Jarrett, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response
Published Date: 6/17/2013 1:57:00 PM
Category: Exercises & Trainings; Public Health Preparedness;

Why Community Planners Need an Effective Fatality Management Plan and How to Get Started
Author: Elizabeth Jarrett, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response

When a major disaster strikes, good community planning can help the survivors cope with all of the losses that they have sustained in the emergency. In mass fatality incidents, it can help ensure that remains are treated with respect and that their loved ones are notified in a timely fashion. A good fatality management plan is critical to reducing the pain of an already terrible situation and helping individuals, families and communities find closure.


“Local authorities normally handle deaths in a community, but whether it’s a plane crash, an industrial accident, a mass shooting, or a natural disaster, the sheer number of fatalities can overwhelm local resources so adequate planning can make all the difference when or if it happens,” said Dr. Edward Kilbane, Fatality Management Program Manager for the National Disaster Medical System within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).
Take the time to learn about the federal assets that your community can call on in times of crisis, including Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams (DMORTs). DMORTs work under the guidance of local authorities by providing technical assistance and personnel to recover, identify, and process deceased victims. Teams may include funeral directors, medical examiners, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, medical records technicians and transcribers, fingerprint specialists, forensic odontologists, dental assistants, x-ray technicians, and other personnel. These teams have deployed 30 times in the past 20 years to augment local medical examiners’ and coroner’s offices. HHS also maintains several Disaster Portable Morgue Units (DPMU) that can be used by DMORTs to establish a stand-alone morgue operation.


Become familiar with the process to activate the federal response system. The governor’s office or state health commissioner must request federal assistance before federal agencies can activate resources, including DMORT. Requests are directed through the local disaster management structure to the state level. Be prepared to describe the magnitude of the incident, what you’re doing locally and how you’re leveraging surrounding jurisdictions as well as state resources. When there are resources gaps, look to federal agencies for unique ability or to supplement your efforts. To learn more about activating federal, state and local resources, see the online FEMA Sequence of Events training.

A mass fatality plan is one part – one important part – of your community’s overall disaster response plan. Make sure that your fatality management plan is well integrated into the rest of your community’s planning efforts.

By planning now, you can be better prepared to handle a mass fatality incident if it occurs in your community. In a crisis, that may mean that you are better able care for the dead by ensuring that their remains are handled with respect and that you can help the survivors by providing an important step on the path to closure.


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