Around 70 consuls attended the inaugural Consular Academy, which focused on emergency procedures in the event of a consular crisis in the UK.
Held at the Sri Lanka High Commission, the seminar was aimed at consuls who have to assist foreign nationals whose relatives may be victims in a mass casualty event.
It was timely for consuls involved in contingency planning for the 2012 Olympics.
Mass casualty events
DS Heather Scott of Scotland Yard gave consuls an overview of procedures followed in disaster victim identification (DVI) and how consuls can assist police in identifying foreign victims of a mass casualty event nationals.
Consuls, who are likely to receive calls from concerned relatives, were asked to direct them to the Casualty Bureau. DS Scott also advised them to brief relatives on the relevant information the bureau would need. DS Scott stressed that a language line would be available for relatives unable to speak English.
She explained that the Bureau would then match these details with information that officers were gathering at hospitals and survivor reception centres.
The deceased would be taken to a disaster mortuary for a post-mortem and victim identification. Only an Identification Commission – usually comprising a coroner, a senior identification manager (SIM)and forensic experts – can formally identify a victim after ante-mortem and post-mortem data have been matched. This is done using scientific evidence (prints, dental records or DNA) and supported by secondary identifiers (such as scars or tattoos).
Consuls were warned that victim identification was a rigorous and sometimes lengthy procedure. However, social media sites and rolling news channels may also be problematic because information about the victim’s identity may be released before the police have had a chance to positively identify a victim.
Once a foreign national is identified, the police will inform the point of contact at the mission using the Project Hermes electronic information system. If there are a number of victims from a single country, consuls from that mission may be invited to assist at the Casualty Bureau.
Family liaison officers
A Family Liaison Officer may also be deployed to assist the family and gather information to aid the police investigation, family liaison officer DS Gill Piloni told consuls. These are detectives who are the single point of contact between the family and the investigation team, the media, the coroner and funeral directors.
FLOs are normally deployed in the case of a serious crime or a major incident.
Role of the coroner
Any violent or unexplained death in the UK is referred to a coroner, with one in ten cases undergoing an autopsy and inquest, Mr Paul Matthews, HM Coroner for the City of London explained to consuls.
Only diplomats are immune from a coroner’s inquiry, consuls are not.
Mr Matthews outlined the powers that a coroner had, including the right to the possession of the body for as long as is required and the right to remove organs or take samples to assist in the investigation.
These powers override cultural and religious sensitivities, but he added that coroners will always try to accommodate cultural and religious traditions by releasing the body for burial or repatriation before the end of an enquiry.
Once the cause of death is established, a registration of death can be issued. If the investigation is a lengthy one, an interim certificate can be obtained. Relatives wanting to repatriate the body will need an Out of England Order, issued by the coroner.
Sue Ackerman of funeral directors Rowland Brothers International offered advice to consuls about the role of funeral directors and how they can help with the practical issues of repatriation as well as the emotional assistance to grieving relatives.
Sri Lanka High Commissioner Nonis with Bernard Silver, George Georgiou, DC Gill Piloni and DS Heather Scott
at the 999 Seminar
London Mr Paul Matthews
Sue Ackerman (Rowland Brothers International)
Committee member Bernard Silver (Seychelles)
Dimitri Pampoulov (Bulgaria)
and Lucas Opdenakker (Belgium)