Medical Examiners Prepare for Disaster at Jersey City Training Event

Several agencies from across New York City and the surrounding area put their skills to the test during a recent week-long training event in Jersey City, NJ. The event, organized by New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner (NYC OCME) and the New Jersey State Medical Examiner (NJ SME), was designed to better prepare multiple jurisdictions within the region to work together following a catastrophic mass fatality incident.

For the past several years, the NYC OCME has organized events such as this year’s training in Jersey City to evaluate how well responders would handle a widespread incident. Though previous events have typically only included agencies from New York City, this year’s training included participants from more than 20 medical examiner and coroner jurisdictions from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Officials say that in a real-life incident, such coordination between states would be critical.

“The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA have funded the Regional Catastrophic Planning Grant Program (RCPG) that has allowed New York and its surrounding states to work together and develop a regional-based mass fatality response system plan that would be used in the event of a catastrophic incident,” explains Director of the Special Operations Division for the NYC OCME, Frank DePaolo. “This event has given all of us the opportunity to evaluate and improve upon this plan to identify critical tasks that would be required to respond to a large-scale catastrophic incident.”

The mass fatality response system plan is one of eight plans currently under development.

Also on hand for this year’s event were personnel from U.S. NORTHCOM, the Air National Guard Fatality Search & Recovery Team (FSRT), the National Guard Bureau Civil Support Team (CST) and the Army’s Joint Mortuary Affairs Center, as well as personnel from the Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner in Clark County, Nevada.

Clark County has worked closely with the NYC OCME in recent years to develop a mass fatality response system that includes use of the Unified Victim Identification System, also known as UVIS. The system, developed by NYC following the attacks on the city on September 11, 2001, is designed to make the identification of victims a more efficient process.

“The Unified Victim Identification System has been designed to facilitate the various operations involved in a mass fatality incident, from call center operations to scene investigation and recovery operations to family assistance operations. By working together, the NYC OCME and Clark County have been able to share ideas and ensure that we have the best systems in place should a disaster ever occur,” says Derek Dubasik, an administrator at Clark County’s Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner.

As part of the fictitious mass fatality scenario at Jersey City, personnel set up facilities at the incident site from which they could perform various operations, including command and control, triage and evidence processing. Several of the facilities were shelter systems NYC OCME purchased from DHS Technologies in 2007.

“In a mass fatality incident we’re not going to be able to rely on permanent structures,” explains John Scrivani, deputy commissioner for operations for New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (NYC OEM). “We’re not going to want to risk bringing contaminants into a building and we need to be able to bring command and control directly to the scene. Temporary shelters such as these definitely provide us the space we need and protect us from the elements.”

Participants were briefed inside a 1,250 square foot DRASH J Series Shelter, complete with Deployable Command and Control Equipment. Nearby, personnel utilized the OCME’s Decedent Decontamination/Isolation Collection Point (DD/ICP) Negative Autopsy Suite to handle fatalities collected from the scene. The facility, comprised of a 100 foot-long DRASH M Shelter, features areas for triage, evidence, processing, forensic exams, decontamination and dental identification.

A Reeves Isolation System, outfitted with a HEPA filtration system to prevent the spread of hazardous materials, served as an autopsy suite as well.
Personnel successfully completed this year’s training event, using the OCME’s shelters for operations throughout the week. Officials say that, while they do plan to continue to hold such events to ensure they have the best, most efficient processes in place, they are pleased with the teamwork that has already been demonstrated.

“This is the first regional based mass fatality management response system of its kind in the country,” says DePaolo.

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