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Disaster Situations/Incident Investigation

In the case of more devastating or catastrophic disasters – those that end with loss of life or limb – identification of victims can be time consuming and costly, and can cause loved ones added anguish as they wait for information. The process can be even more difficult when investigators are forced to rely on old records. Obtaining old records can take days to months, and can be complicated because of consent and privacy issues. Furthermore, it may be difficult to establish the authenticity and accuracy of old records.  All of this delays closure for the family.

In these situations, some types of identification are not possible; for instance, in the case of a catastrophic plane crash, the co-mingling of blood or tissues from multiple victims may make DNA identification impossible. Fire or decomposition could hamper the use of DNA.  Similarly, if such an event occurred in a remote or non-industrialized location, laboratory facilities and subject matter expertise may not exist. Biometric identification provides a profile of identifying information so that other sources, such as fingerprints or footprints, could be used in these circumstances.

The identification of hurricane, tornado, earthquake or victims of other catastrophic events can be time consuming and costly.  Survivors are asked to recall the locations of medical or dental records with no guarantee that the needed documents were maintained by the health care providers.  The process is complicated because of issues of consent, privacy and the legal standing of those requesting the information. Death certificates, insurance settlements, real estate transfers, retirement and Social Security benefits are delayed pending the accurate identification of the deceased.

In the United States  the medical examiner or coroner has legal responsibility for postmortem identification and for issuing a death certificate. The basis for the determination is the credibility of the available forensic information. Misidentification can have devastating legal and emotional consequences that extend beyond that particular case.