Rapid DNA & Mass Fatality Incidents
Written by Amanda Sozer   

Become Part of a Cooperative Group that Supports Others in Mass Fatality Incident Responses

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 was a bright blue perfect day along the eastern part of the U.S. I was working in my home office in northern Virginia when a client in a Midwest crime laboratory called and asked me what was going on along the East Coast. I turned on the news, and my professional career changed forever.

A few days later, as a technical contractor for the National Institute of Justice, I was sent to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in New York City to support the largest human DNA identification effort ever undertaken. It was a complex and fast-paced effort with many lessons learned along the way. Four years later, when Hurricane Katrina—one of the nation’s most devastating disasters in recent history—hit Louisiana and Mississippi, I was called to support the human identification efforts for the Louisiana State Police. Once DNA was authorized to be used as an identification method, we applied the lessons learned from 9/11. With the help of five outsourced laboratories, we completed the first DNA identifications within weeks which, at the time, was unprecedented.

Historically, DNA technology has been used as a last resort in the identification of disaster victims. Traditional DNA testing could prove costly when sending samples to third-party laboratories, and waiting for the results was tedious. That all started to change with the advent of Rapid DNA.

In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) began exploring the use of Rapid DNA technology in mass-fatality responses. They had already been looking at Rapid DNA to support legal immigration and fight human trafficking. At first, the Rapid DNA instruments were deployed to mass fatality response drills and exercises that tested the capability of the technology. The first drill was simple, testing whether the instruments could be shipped on short notice to a disaster-response operation. Over the next year, the drills became more complex and eventually DHS S&T was able to identify and mitigate potential logistical challenges for more complex deployments.

What consistently proved true was that the technology was robust, effective, easy-to-use, and integrated well into the overall response. Just-in-time training was productive, and the instruments produced real-time results, in the same time it takes a family to complete a victim-identification antemortem interview. Perhaps most importantly was the information DHS collected from the actors participating as family members in the exercises. During the exercises, DHS polled exercise participants on how supportive they were of the government's use of Rapid DNA for identification of missing persons in disasters. One-hundred percent of participants were supportive.

In November 2018, the Camp Fire in Butte County, California took the lives of 85 people. Due to the heat and intensity of the fire, traditional methods of identification were not feasible. The Butte County Sheriff’s office turned to Rapid DNA in order to identify the victims. A Rapid DNA company, ANDE, provided instrumentation and staff for the DNA response efforts. The quick and accurate identification of these victims demonstrated that Rapid DNA is a viable option for disaster victim identification that can not only save time and money, but can also bring closure to the families of those victims much faster than traditional DNA testing methods. This validated our experience in mass fatality response exercises. Rapid DNA technology is a game changer for a mass fatality DNA response operation.

So how does this all work? Following Hurricane Katrina, we recognized that there was no group response for DNA operations similar to the Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team (DMORT), which operates victim information centers and temporary morgues. This led to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) providing support for a forensic DNA “co-op.” Following Katrina, NIJ funded forensic DNA analysts from across the U.S. to support the DNA efforts in Louisiana. Analysts came for two-week periods and, after rigorous training and a competency test, they supported the data analysis section of the DNA identification operations. The benefits of this co-op program were two-fold: First, the forensic DNA analysts provided much-needed staffing relief to the DNA identification effort. And second, they learned about the intricacies of a complex DNA identification effort using kinship testing. NIJ’s hope was that it would help better prepare them for future events. Unfortunately, there was not much interest from the government in keeping the group going until 2017—12 years after Katrina.

DNA was utilized to identify human remains in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, there has been little effort from the government, until recently, to establish the groundwork for a coordinated Rapid DNA response to mass fatality incidents.

In April of 2017, the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) realized that Rapid DNA would play a significant role in forensic testing and started a Rapid DNA Task Force to address the responsible implementation of Rapid DNA. Four months later, the ASCLD Disaster Victim (DVI) subcommittee materialized at the Rapid DNA Technology Forum when Rapid DNA users from across the U.S. came together to discuss the technology and its applications. The goal of the ASCLD Rapid DNA DVI Task Force is to determine best practices, develop models and policies, and to be an important resource during times of need.

There is currently a national response gap when it comes to routinely using DNA in mass fatality responses because, unlike other mortuary response efforts, DNA testing is not supported by DMORT or any other organization. (Note: An exception to this is in instances of legislative transportation disasters—such as those in commercial airlines and high-speed rail. The National Transportation Safety Board has a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defense Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory for providing DNA identification testing following legislative transportation disasters.) To fill this gap, the ASCLD Rapid DNA DVI Subcommittee is exploring how forensic operations with Rapid DNA capabilities can fill this gap and support each other following a mass fatality. Forensic operations that have daily operational uses of Rapid DNA will be the most effective in responding to mass fatalities. DHS S&T is supporting this effort.

Thought leaders in forensic DNA recognize that national, state, and local crime laboratories have expertise in DNA identification and are well situated to be willing partners in a national DVI response. Leveraging the expertise, location, and responsibility of crime labs represents a tremendous opportunity to build a national network.

In further preparing for a coordinated Rapid DNA response, DHS funding is available for Rapid DNA instrumentation and supplies through FEMA’s Approved Equipment List (AEL). DHS S&T is interested in supporting the planning and participation of mass fatality responses that incorporate Rapid DNA operations. They also want to give local jurisdictions access to DHS first-responder communications and data-sharing initiatives that would support coordinated mass fatality responses and recovery activities.

For example, DHS Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM) is currently working with DHS S&T to develop a prototype capability (software solution) to store, match, and share DNA profiles for human identification. This store-match-share prototype could potentially be jointly used by the Rapid DNA responders. This type of software is not typically used in smaller crime laboratories due to complexity and cost.

As a forensic community we also need to explore ways that Rapid DNA can further support disaster response operations beyond fatality operations. For example, DNA can be very helpful in person-tracking and the identification of persons involved in criminal activities associated with a mass fatality response.

ASCLD’s DVI Rapid DNA Subcommittee, DHS S&T, NIJ Forensic Technology Center of Excellence, and SNA International held an interactive Rapid DNA DVI workshop on May 19, 2019 at the ASCLD Annual meeting. At the day-long workshop, participants engaged in hands-on, realistic activities that take place during a DVI response which pertain to Rapid DNA. This provided participants a genuine representation of what a response entails, and also identified next steps in formalizing ASCLD’s Rapid DNA Task Force deliverables and the Rapid DNA Cooperative concept. If you could not make this exercise, there will be other opportunities. ASCLD will continue to plan the Rapid DNA Cooperative concept during the Human Identity Trade Association workshop at the International Symposium on Human Identification in September 2019.

Please reach out to me at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or any member of the ASCLD Board if you are interested in participating in the Rapid DNA Cooperative.

About the Author

Amanda Sozer, Ph.D., president of SNA International, received her B.A. from Rutgers University and her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee–Oak Ridge Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Sozer has worked in forensics for over 20 years, directing forensic laboratories and programs. In addition to directing forensic DNA laboratories, she served as a technical contractor to the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and worked on the DNA backlog reduction programs for no-suspect forensic cases and convicted offender outsourcing programs, which resulted in the processing of millions of samples. She has worked on numerous local, state, and federal forensic projects within the United States, and forensic projects and human identification initiatives in Guatemala, Cyprus, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Lebanon, the Philippines, and Libya.

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

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