DISASTER CRIME SCENE FORENSICS
"a disaster of biblical proportions...dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria" (Dr. Peter Venkman)
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, special burdens exist with the collection and analysis of forensically-sound evidence to bring perpetrators to justice. There may be what will seem like disasters after the disaster. While chaos, lawlessness, and mass hysteria are NOT likely to happen, there may be an overwhelming volume of public information seeking and risk-aversive behaviors which may or may not make sense. In the "evacuation shadow" (as it's called), fearful people may generate rumors or myths which incite panic. According to Tierney, Bevc & Kuligowski (2006), the point closest in time (and tone) to the panic point is when the media announces "the National Guard has been called in to prevent looting." In addition, as discussed elsewhere, there may be problems with fraudsters, swindlers, price gougers, scam artists, souvenir seekers, and other types of (bad) actors who appear on the scene. These kinds of perpetrators need to be brought to justice as much as any perpetrators involved in the original disaster. Family members may want to visit the crime scene, first responders may become emotionally and physically exhausted, and a whole host of unexpected problems may present themselves. Disaster crime scene forensics may require ongoing investigations at multiple sites. There is no way to completely delineate all procedures. It should be noted that it is impossible to address every conceivable eventuality, and in such times when there is, for example, strong pressure to attribute the source quickly, it will seem like the book is being "written" as you go along. It is helpful to remember that there are some smart things to do. The field of catastrophe management is evolving, and although there are great hardships to overcome, it is possible to establish some semblance of law and order and conduct criminal justice functions as usual. There are four (4) basic principles to keep in mind:
the body of a person killed as a result of a disaster does not pose a risk for infection
mass graves should never be used for burying disaster victims
under no circumstances should mass cremation of bodies take place (this often goes against the cultural and religious practices of the affected people)
it is necessary to exhaust every effort to identify the bodies, and as a last resort bury unidentified corpses in individual niches or graves (this is a basic human right of surviving family members)
A neat appendix in Dyson's (2005) book is aptly titled: What Not to Do in Response to a Terrorism Attack. It offers good advice, but can be expanded upon. It is important to expand upon what we know about mass catastrophe management. The fields of forensics in this regard are also in urgent need of development. Dyson (2005) makes some points more strongly than others, for purposes of emphasis. For one, he strongly recommends continuous filming at the disaster scene, filming of the victims (their bodies and clothing may contain evidence), filming of the crowd (the perpetrators may be in the crowd, or even among the victims if the device detonated prematurely), and filming of the investigation (a standard part of documentation). This places a rather high burden on law enforcement. Often, there is a feeling among people at the scene (media included) that things would be better off if no filming took place. An option is to use expanded police powers to secure any video footage from surveillance cameras, the media, and/or citizens who are filming things. One would think that such confiscation might be just as important as forcing people to surrender their firearms in the wake of disaster. After all, under some scenarios, it is possible that terrorists or their sympathizers are filming the scene in the aftermath. Not attempting to obtain and review all video footage, before, during, and after an incident is inexcusable. Most crime and terrorism investigations proceed on the assumption there always is a video record, if only it can be found. Most target areas should already be under video surveillance if adequate homeland security measures are in place. Nonetheless, during the course of disaster scene processing, most forensics teams use a rather sophisticated piece of tripod surveying equipment called the Nikon Total Station, which maps 360 degrees in all directions and comes with software enabling 3-D animation of what happened.
The Internet is also something in need of continuous monitoring, usually from an offsite, continuity location where power has been uninterrupted or restored. Websites, chat rooms, and email traffic often signal the terrorist chatter before and after an event happens. On the other hand, some active Internet site of interest will suddenly go quiet. This "on-again/off-again" pattern frequently occurs in conjunction with terrorist attacks. Not too many terrorist groups these days issue communiqués taking credit for something, and those that do may or may not be the "real" terrorist group, but a copycat or wannabe group. Be sure, however, that a claim is "bogus" and the group in question is not dangerous before discounting or discrediting that group. Any terrorist group claiming responsibility for something they didn't do is just looking to pick a fight with authorities, but as with the problem of "false confessions," these kind of people represent a variety of characters. Authorities should not treat "minor" attacks as indicative of an unsophisticated terrorist group. It may be that the target was specially picked, even though the devastation is small. Similarly, what seems like the "wrong" target should not be downplayed.
Related to Internet monitoring is media monitoring. It is important for law enforcement to be up front with the news media. Downplaying or denying a terrorist attack will backfire. Likewise, exaggerating or emphasizing the terrorist attack will backfire. The first mistake restricts the amount of assistance and money which will come in to help deal with the problem. The second mistake plays into the hands of the terrorists. It is especially important to avoid, as long as possible, putting numbers on the damage. The media will always exaggerate this, saying the attack caused $2 million or so in damage, when in fact, the official damage will come out to be about $1 million or so. Discrepancies like these are some of the "trivial" things which may goad terrorists into a repeat performance. Things which spawn "copycat" terrorism include releasing information about the group's "profile" or methods. The media has much to learn about responsible journalism when it comes to contemporary terrorism, and in most post-disaster scenarios, it is to be normally expected that any crimes to be prosecuted will have been "tried in the media" and not in the courtroom. Among other things, this creates problems with finding an impartial jury.
After assisting and identifying victims (not a small responsibility), it is important to get a clue at which groups might hate the target. Law enforcement should turn their attention to activist groups which may support the political cause of the group with carried out the terrorist attack. Now, such parties will not likely want to cooperate with law enforcement, and it stands to reason the parties you most want to talk to really hate law enforcement. It is always important to remember that first responders can easily become secondary targets with delayed bombs. Eric Rudolph allegedly did this with two bombs, to target law enforcement and/or first responders who responded to the first bomb. Dealing with those who support the terrorist cause (called "surface supporters") is never easy. They should never be harassed, but handled discreetly and with respect. Other than that, standard law enforcement techniques usually work at detecting deception. For example, there is the strong possibility that they knew of the attack, or something of value about the attack, if they seem to have "airtight" alibis about their whereabouts during the attack. Above all, the impression must never be given that such supporters are suspects or persons of interest.
Driving terrorists underground via announcement of a vast "dragnet" is unwise. If such an all-out effort is being done, it's best to keep it quiet. Terrorists will follow the media as well as have many feelers out to ascertain exactly how extensive the government crackdown is afterwards. Nothing is gained that drives the terrorists underground, and nothing is gained by saying law enforcement has no clues, either. Threatening, labeling, or badgering the terrorists thru the media is also unwise. If money awards are being offered for information, this should be handled discreetly, as they are often a badge of honor among the criminally-minded. If it can be done safely, it might be best for law enforcement to let private groups handle any bounty or money award. Also, if law enforcement or any particular part of the joint law enforcement effort is "bungling" the case, it is not good policy to make such criticism public. Blaming the "feds" or any other agency in a public forum is unwarranted. In a catastrophe, there are severe enough breakdowns in infrastructure for blame to be spread around.
Sources of information on covert members and surface supporters to keep in mind while conducting an investigation during a catastrophe include the following:
informants -- persons on the periphery of the group's network
citizens -- like persons on the periphery, but less likely to be closer to covert members
physical evidence and crime scenes -- evidence with phone numbers, addresses
technical or other coverage on related extremist groups --
intelligence about the group
other law enforcement agencies
private intelligence-gathering entities
law enforcement retirees who continue to work in terrorism areas after retirement
through organizing of information
being alert for the use of false identification
being alert for missing people among cause-related activists
WORKING WITH DEBRIS FIELDS AND PILES
The phrase "debris field" generally refers to area of ground where evidence scatters after a disaster. It may be the size of several football fields. The phrase "debris pile" generally refers to establishment of zones where debris can be scraped or sifted. Debris removal procedures vary from situation to situation and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some situations, private contractors are use and reimbursed; in other situations, it is the state or local government's responsibility to get things done; and in still other situations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is called in. An important first step, however, is to have a Department of Environmental Protection team examine the area for HAZMAT and decontamination concerns. Asbestos and many other hazardous materials are usually present in debris fields, requiring special special handling (to prevent further airborne dispersal) as well as special disposal.
Once a HAZMAT assessment has been conducted, the words "hot," "warm," and "cold" take on new meaning, and usually refer to a classification system whereby three different kinds of debris piles can be established based upon investigative categories of interest. This may involve three piles reflecting the relative importance of evidence to be found, or more likely, will involve piles reflecting an attempt to determine the minimum number of individuals (MNI)involved, especially if they are anatomically disassociated or commingled. Forensic mass grave excavation bears a strong resemblance to survey archaeology (Schmitt 2002), but procedures should be flexible enough to allow revisions to be made in the way things are classified and labeled. Bobcat equipment is generally used along with conveyors to sort and sift the debris. Standard procedure usually involves a number of investigators working alongside the converyors looking for every last piece of human remains.
If the disaster is a plane crash, there may not be much in terms of human remains. Jet fuel burns at 2000 degrees, and the human body incinerates at 1500 degrees. In a typical scenario involving 200 victims, a forensics team is likely to find about 4000 body parts. An effort should be made to try and find at least some soft tissue which might be embedded in seat belts or wiring harnesses. This is especially true for the pilot, for purposes of DNA identification in the event of skyjacking. If the scene involves salt water, as a tsunami disaster would, it should be known that salt water degrades DNA quite rapidly, and some scientific agreement might have to be reached on the number of allele calls needed to identify someone's DNA. Identification by fingerprints and dental records are also done. For help with unidentified bodies, some countries are in the habit of releasing pictures of the dead's faces, but the U.S. does not approve of this habit.
SETTING UP THE CONTROL CENTER
A control center should be set up with clear demarcations between specialized units organized around the mass casualty plan. There should be little overlap in responsibilities so as to avoid confusion. Nonetheless, special requests will be forthcoming (from dignitaries, family members, etc), and some personnel assignments may need to remain flexible. The least confusion should exist with logistics and supply. A control center's primary responsibilities should include: notifying the next of kin, providing family assistance, performing casualty support actions such as documentation for pay and benefits, awards and decorations, posthumous promotions, and reconstitution of personnel and medical records. A telephone hotline should be set up to process calls for information on financial matters, housing, transportation, and other issues related to the needs of the victims' families. The disaster area itself will usually be staked out with 10-by-10 or 10-by-30 meter grids, which are numbered. This will permit the labeling of remains, wreckage parts, and other items, as well as greatly aid the identification process. Expect to be able to process about 100 victims per day. Multiple searches will take place even after all the remains have been recovered. A visual of what a control center looks like is as follows:
DECONTAMINATION AND CLEANUP
Care must be taken to properly identify the contaminant before decontamination can take place. Procedures will vary by type of contaminant, and, of course, by the number of casualties. The basic form of emergency decontamination involves either removing the contaminant from the area AND/OR removing the survivors from the area, but this is only practical if a small number of people are involved. Otherwise, gross (or corridor) procedures are called for. Large facilities (like LAX) have plans in place for being able to decontaminate at least 10,000 people. In certain cases involving certain kinds of contaminants, a "prewashing" stage might be necessary before going thru full decontamination. Sometimes, the characteristics of a decontamination procedure take on the characteristics of mass arrest, with people being forcibly rounded up. Panic must be avoided, and it is important that anybody be decontaminated before they are taken to a hospital. Clothing is removed, of course (by the roll-down method to prevent dispersion of airborne particles), and in the case of radiological contamination only, water irrigation should be sufficient until the survivor can be taken to medical services where triage will likely be involved but anti-radiation treatments like DTPA and Prussian Blue can be applied.
Decontamination suits and training with them are essential. Class 1 ensembles are not disposable (as opposed to Class 2), and are fully self-contained but hard to move around and breathe in. A first responder also gets very hot in them. Class 2 ensembles are typically known as respirators. Both kinds of devices have positive pressure face pieces which protect against anything vaporized, liquid, or permeable. The only difference is that with respirators, one has to securely protect their own hands and feet (with tape, usually, to their own gloves and boots).
There are four types of decontamination per NFPA 472, as follows (Maniscalco & Christen 2011):
Emergency decontamination where the primary focus is the rapid removal of most of the contaminated material from an exposed individual or small group of individuals.
Mass decontamination is the emergency removal of contamination quickly from a large group of victims. The typical standard to conduct a needed mass decontamination process involves the use of fire fighting hose lines by firefighters. This process is beneficial when dealing with a large number of ambulatory victims. Shower systems with provisions for capturing contaminated water runoff are commercially available and may provide a degree of victim privacy as well.
Gross decontamination is performed by trained and certified emergency responders after emergency teams exit a hazardous environment, and the basic procedure is to walk people thru a decontamination corridor in assembly-line fashion.
Technical decontamination is part of the gross decontamination and is a thorough cleaning procedure usually performed with cleaning materials and scrubbing equipment after individuals have been prewashed. Technical decontamination also involves the cleaning of equipment used by the entry teams.
Regarding cleanup, a whole industry has developed, called CTS Decon (crime and trauma scene decontamination) devoted to this area of work which might be said to involve "secondary responders." The average worker makes $600 an hour in this industry, and there are a shortage of them. Ordinary cleaning companies won't do. Special equipment is needed. Although the industry isn't strongly regulated, there are emerging standards. One such standard is OSHA's Bloodborne Pathogens Standard for handling biohazardous material (federal regulations deem all bodily fluids as biohazardous). There are also usually state guidelines. Most workers in the field have some EMT or emergency room experience in their background, and a construction or engineering background is helpful too. The goal is to restore the scene to its pre-incident state. Typical gear required are as follows:
55-gallon drums, marked as biohazard waste containers
Protective gear, in the form of one-time use body suits
Cleaning supplies, industrial strength cleansers
Aerosol devices, such as foggers and deodorizers
Carpentry tools, like saws and hammers
It is important to be thorough. Any bodily fluids left behind will tend to mold or create a fungus which causes serious sickness later on. Standard disposal procedure involves a medical waste incinerator. It would be unfair to list any (and not all) the businesses in this industry. The reader should do a search for some iteration of the following keywords: crime scene cleaners, crime and trauma cleaning, trauma and crime cleanup.
FEMA Guide to Disposing of Debris and Hazardous Waste
Florida's Guide to Disaster Debris Roles and Responsibilities
Howstuffworks: Crime Scene Cleanup
Interpol Guide to Disaster Victim Identification
Pan American Health Organization Manual for Dead Bodies After Disaster
Tragedy at Gander: How Mortuary Affairs were Handled
Burton, S. (Ed.) (2007). Crisis Management and National Emergency Response: Current Perspectives Readings from InfoTrac College Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Dyson, W. (2005). Terrorism: An Investigator's Handbook. Cincinnati: LexisNexis Anderson.
FEMA (2000). Emergency Response to Terrorism: Tactical Considerations. Washington DC: USFA/NFA.
Hogan, D. & Burstein, J. (2002). Disaster Medicine. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Jervis, J., McGowan, D. & Revere, M. (2005). Mass Casualty Management. San Clemente, CA: LawTech.
Maniscalco, P. & Christen, H. (2011). Homeland Security: Principles and Practice of Terrorism Response. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
Schmitt, S. (2002). "Mass Graves and the Collection of Forensic Evidence." Pp. 277-292 in Haglund, W. & Sorg, M. (eds.) Advances in Forensic Taphonomy. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Tierney, K., Bevc, C. & Kuligowski, E. (2006). "Metaphors matter: Disaster myths, media frames, and their consequences in Hurricane Katrina." Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 57-81.
Last updated: Feb. 10, 2012
Not an official webpage of APSU, copyright restrictions apply, see Megalinks in Criminal Justice
O'Connor, T. (2012). "Disaster Crime Scene Forensics," MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/3430/3430lect07b.htm.