Serving the Living

By Debbie Hersman

Today, I spoke at the International Mass Fatality Management Conference, which brought together leaders in mass fatality management to explore past incident management, discuss lessons learned, and define best practices to improve future responses. It was a privilege to be with dedicated professionals from 38 states, 19 countries, and several government agencies who deal with such important, complex, and sensitive issues.

My remarks were based on the NTSB’s experience in coordinating assistance to family members after major accidents. While NTSB has the responsibility to facilitate victim recovery and identification, we do not conduct those processes. That responsibility remains with the local medical examiner or coroner. Yet, these offices can rely on our Transportation and Disaster Assistance team (TDA) to work closely with U.S. jurisdictions to ensure they get needed resources and advice.

Importantly, while their work must be done correctly from a technical perspective, it is essential to effectively and compassionately address the needs and concerns of family members regarding victim recovery and identification. Interactions with family members are crucial, but it is equally crucial they be conducted with professionalism, understanding, and compassion.

We’ve learned a lot since Congress gave us this responsibility in 1996. We know there is a constant and often delicate balance to maintain between the medicolegal responsibilities associated with any mass fatality event and the concerns of the bereaved. Yet, I reminded the audience that the way family members are treated during the initial response will stay with them forever, which underscores the importance of doing the work correctly and always with an understanding of the importance of families.

Poet-undertaker Thomas Lynch captured the importance of the audience’s work in his poem, “Local Heroes,” about the forensic response to the 2001 World Trade Center disaster. Lynch wrote: “… here, brave men and women pick the pieces up. They serve the living, caring for the dead.”

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