Consuls are key in crisis response

In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks and other mass fatality incidents, consuls in London attended a seminar organised by Rowland Brothers International to learn about the role consuls play in victim identification of their nationals.

Addressing the seminar was Detective Inspector Howard Way of the UK’s Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) unit, whose talk was aimed at helping consuls understand DVI procedures in case a mass fatality incident involved their citizens.

While assisting survivors is the primary function of consuls in an emergency response, they are also under pressure in the aftermath to provide information to their ministries and concerned relatives about victims.

Consuls play a key role in a multi-agency DVI response, said DI Way, who has worked on major incidents such as the Malaysian Airlines MH17 disaster in Ukraine and the Asian Tsunami. Consuls will liaise with the police Casualty Bureau (which gathers information about potential victims in a mass fatality incident); police Family Liaison Officers (who are the point of contact for relatives of victims); and coroners (who investigate the cause of any sudden or unnatural death).

Consular response
By knowing what information to gather when consuls field calls from concerned relatives can aid victim identification. It is therefore advisable that they familiarise themselves with the information typically needed to complete the Interpol ante-mortem form (the ‘yellow form’) this is usually completed by law enforcement personnel, which can be passed on to the Casualty Bureau, said DI Way.

When many victims of a particular nationality are involved in a mass casualty event, consuls representing that country may be requested to assist at the Casualty Bureau. Otherwise the consulate will be notified of victims via Project Hermes, a joint initiative by the FCO and the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection group of the Met Police.

Gathering victim information
DI Way gave consuls an overview of the thorough procedures involved in the collection of post-mortem information on disaster sites. He stressed that only primary identifiers – dental records, fingerprints or DNA – can be used for formal identification to a reliable scientific standard. Secondary identifiers, such as passports or wallets, can be helpful as supporting evidence but are not conclusive.

To gather the corresponding ante-mortem data, police Family Liaison Officers (FLOs) approach families of missing people who may be able to provide dental records or DNA samples as well as other identifiers, such as birthmarks, scars or distinctive tattoos. Consuls may be able to assist by putting FLOs in touch with relatives. Alternatively, investigators may liaise with other police forces through Interpol.

Reconciliation is when ante and post mortem data are compared and if a conclusive match is found, then the victim is formally identified.

International cooperation
When incidents involve foreign nationals, there are international protocols governing access to the disaster sites. “If a country has citizens missing in a disaster they should be allowed to observe the process and, if invited, participate in the process,” DI Way told consuls.

The level of access to a site varies, depending on the country in which the incident took place. In conflict zones, such as East Ukraine, this can pose difficulties. Often the country which has the most victims will take a lead in the negotiations, as the Dutch did for the MH17 disaster.

Whoever takes the lead in the DVI process, it is vital that all investigators work to the same international standards. Thus training programmes, such as the DVI Project under the auspices of the European Police College (CEPOL), are very useful. Christian Decobecq, DVI Commander of the Belgian Police who heads up the project, gave consuls an overview of its activities, which include exchange programmes and training courses for European DVI investigators, as well as a secure communication platform for the exchange of information.

The UK DVI unit offers training organised through the FCO and has recently given courses in Singapore, the UAE and South Africa. Interpol now has 193 members and each disaster offers lessons for improving DVI procedures, said DI Way.

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Christian Decobecq, Sue Ackerman and Howard Way