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In the News

Mass fatality plan to benefit response and training

Friday, December 26, 2014

Educating area governments and emergency response teams on how to respond to mass fatality incidents has been priority for the Capital Area Council of Governments Homeland Security Division for years. Entities in the region have participated in a number of training sessions, hosted national recognized trainers on the subject, and focused several planning initiatives on the topic.

In the summer of 2014, CAPCOG received a grant to develop a mass fatality plan so it could provide local jurisdictions with assistance in improving the responses to such incidents throughout its 10-county region. The plan is still under development, but CAPCOG Homeland Security Director Ed Schaefer and Homeland Security Planner Carolyn Sudduth answered questions about why creating a mass fatality plan is important.

What constitutes a mass fatality incident?
Simply stated, a mass fatality incident is any incident resulting in more fatalities than can be managed by a local jurisdiction using its own available resources. Because the level of available resources varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, an incident that would be a “mass fatality incident” in one jurisdiction might not reach that threshold in another.

Mass fatality incidents can result from natural causes, such as tornadoes or pandemic influenza; or have man-made origins, such as the crash of an airliner or an explosion of hazardous chemicals. Mass fatality incidents are sometimes referred to as “mass casualty incidents” but, for planning purposes, mass casualty incidents focus on the need to manage surviving victims while mass fatality incidents focus on the need to manage victims who did not survive. Sometimes, an incident can be both a mass casualty incident and a mass fatality incident.

These types of incidents require multiple agencies and communities coordinate with each other.

Why do governments need to have a mass fatality response plan? And how can the plans help them prepare for a mass fatality incident?
State and federal law require governments at all levels be prepared to respond to emergencies of all types and all degrees of severity, including those that reach the level of a mass fatality incident. Such incidents can occur with little or no warning, as shown by the May 27, 1997 tornado that killed 27 people in Jarrell in Williamson County.

When such incidents have occurred, local officials have used the principles and processes in their jurisdictions’ emergency management plans to guide their response. Development of a mass fatality response plan prior to such an occurrence allows them to focus on the unique issues associated with mass fatality incidents before, not during, the response to such an incident.

Pre-planning provides the opportunity to identify and arrange for needed resources, develop processes and procedures, and train government and private-sector personnel in their roles and responsibilities when such an incident occurs.

What are some of the downfalls of incorrectly handling mass fatality incidents?
A response to a mass fatality incident has several components, including recovery of bodies, processing and final disposition of the remains, and assistance to the families of the deceased. These activities take place in an emotionally charged, highly visible environment that elevates the consequences of failure to follow the requirements of the law or to be sensitive to the needs of the survivors. Any missteps can subject local officials to legal action, negative publicity or both. Every component needs to be handled with a degree of precision, sensitivity and dignity.

How does a mass fatality response plan relate to other homeland security plans and how can it be integrated into those plans?
All jurisdictions are required to develop comprehensive, all-hazard emergency management plans. Such plans outline how local jurisdictions will work with other organizations, including non-governmental organizations and state and federal agencies to provide an effective, coordinated response. Mass fatality response planning is integrated into a broad array of emergency management, law enforcement and public health planning processes. This planning provides the basis for the training and exercise that facilitate such a response.

How will jurisdictions be able to use the developed plan after it is finished? And how can further help those jurisdictions prepare?
CAPCOG is taking a two-pronged approach to mass fatality response planning. The most visible product of this effort will be written plans, guidelines and templates that can be modified by local jurisdictions to meet their particular needs. More important, however, is the opportunity to engage in a process of identifying the issues that will be encountered in a response to a mass fatality incident and to work with other personnel to formulate approaches to dealing with those issues. Our approach focuses on incorporating the unique considerations of mass fatality response into the jurisdiction’s incident command structure, including ensuring that medico-legal authorities continue their statutory oversight of fatality incidents, and incorporating the application of “best practices” to the mass fatality response.

> Discover more about CAPCOG's Homeland Security Divison.

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