Major incident planning

words: Tim Power

You can never predict the future but you can plan for it – and when you are in the funeral business, unfortunately, you have to plan for the worst.

And today it’s no longer just about dealing with the consequences of multiple fatalities from coach or airplane crashes but also the need to cope with the growing incidents of terrorist atrocities, as recently witnessed in Paris and Nice. And an outbreak of a mass pandemic is also a frightening scenario too.

While funeral directors are experienced at dealing with the day-today business of looking after their local customers, the sudden occurrence of a major incident with many fatalities will put a considerable strain on an individual business’ resources. That’s why SAIF developed a major incident disaster scenario to co-ordinate funeral director resources across areas of England and Wales.

Justin Burgess, from JJ Burgess Funeral Directors in Hatfield, worked with Darren Carpenter of Birds Family Funeral Directors in Maidstone, Kent, to set up a disaster scenario plan several years ago.

Justin said: “After the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, where 52 people lost their lives, we decided that we needed to be prepared if anything happened on our doorstep – we wanted to set something up that was more local and where we could be on the scene fast. The plans were intended to provide support for the emergency services but to also provide back up services to our members involved in an incident so they could provide a continuity of service for their existing funeral obligations.

“We established a resilience forum in SAIF and members have keys to SAIF headquarters, maps and directories to help call on members to support each other in such emergencies.

“We contacted all our SAIF members to check on what resources they had, in terms of staff and vehicles, right down to the details of what type of coffins or body bags they stock.

Darren added: “It’s good to know what other resources funeral directors have as, although we are in competition, it’s good to know that we can pull together and just get on with it for the sake of the families.

“We are a small but important cog in the whole disaster recovery process because the real recovery work cannot happen until we take the bodies away. Take a motorway crash for example; the quicker we can go in and remove the fatalities the quicker that road can open.

“It’s not just about being respectful to the person who has passed away and their relatives, you have to think of the bigger picture as well – there’s a big knock on effect.”

Justin and other colleagues have also been called upon to advise the Home Office on funeral director support in the event of mass pandemics, such as the bird flu scare in 2009, and has since gone on to help local authorities and police forces plan for similar emergencies.

One area that is already carefully planned to the last detail is the arrangements for royal funerals, as well as a number of high profile people that merit national recognition. Leverton & Sons in north-west London has been the royal undertakers since 1991 and was involved in the arrangements for Diana, Princess of Wales, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, as well as the funerals of Margaret Thatcher and other high profile personages.

Andrew Leverton, who runs the family firm with his cousin Pippa and uncle Clive, said that confidentiality is the most important element in such high profile situations.

He said: “There’s obviously a lot of media interest but we don’t talk to the press. It’s not our job – our job is to respect the wishes of the family, whether they are royal or not.

“Most families do not want to divulge details of the funeral to the press, and if there is a lot of media interest we will be especially careful, only speaking to senior management at a crematorium or cemetery or possibly using an alias for the deceased to provide anonymity. And some crematoriums are well suited to privacy and security in terms of location and access.”

Even if the press knows where a funeral is going to be held they know they cannot enter the premises. They are often more interested in famous people attending the funeral and generally stand off at a respectful distance, take their photos and leave without inconveniencing anyone.

In the case of very well-known people, there will often be a modest private family funeral that Andrew and his team will manage, and then a more public memorial service held some time later organised by family and friends. Andrew and Clive look after preparations for the royal funerals.

Andrew said: “Although royal funerals are planned well in advance, we don’t necessarily get a lot of notice when the person passes away so we have to be prepared. But in the past we’ve been offered help by other SAIF funeral directors to take care of our existing business, which is welcome.

“Everything is well planned and well-rehearsed beforehand for these sorts of occasions. There are a large number of people that have a job to do, from the police and local authorities through to the royal household but, although we are a very small part in the whole event, we get the satisfaction of seeing the job through from the beginning to the end.

“It’s obviously a great privilege but it’s also a great responsibility and, of course, a stressful time in the lead up to the funeral ensuring everyone is ready and prepared.”

When major international incidents occur, such as plane or train crashes or terrorist atrocities, governments will often call in disaster recovery specialists who are able to mobilise people trained in such scenarios to work with the emergency services to manage the situation. Andrea Button is one of these specialists and is part of Kenyon International, the Texas-based organisation that provides first responders to disaster situations around the world.

In her day job, she runs her family funeral business in Chatham, Kent, but at any time she can be called upon to jump on a plane and fly out to provide support services to the families of the deceased. Last year, she was involved in the tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps.

She said: “I had two days’ notice to pack my bags and get to France to work with the Special Assistant Team (SAT) set up to help with the families.

“The SAT team deal with the next of kin when the families want to go to the crash site, for instance – it gives them some comfort to be there as they feel that they can get faster and more accurate information than sitting at home.

“The SAT team members are assigned to several families to look after all their needs, from escorting them to the crash site to being a friendly ear to listen to their concerns.

“We also, on occasion, have to fill in disaster victim identification forms so we talk with the families to get information about any distinguishing features and jewellery of their loved ones. This information is then matched with similar identification forms completed by the mortuary team to aid identification.

“We also escort families down to the mortuary site to identify their loved ones, or we can be at the airport with the families waiting for the plane that is carrying the bodies home. I did this in London in 2013 when the victims from the terrorist attack on the Tigantourine gas facility in Algeria were being repatriated back to Britain.”

Andrea said that these secondments are generally short but very intense: “I obviously empathise with the families about their terrible loss, but at the same time I am a professional and I’ve got to be strong as they are leaning on me for support. These are very intense situations and it’s very extreme compared to my day job but my experiences as a funeral director have helped me acclimatise to it now.”

After every deployment, Kenyon’s staff will have an exit interview with a mental health specialist to talk about their experience at the disaster site to ensure they are okay – and they can call this support any time after the event.

Darren Carpenter, in his work for the local coroners where he has to remove victims from crime scenes, said that he and his colleague see some pretty disturbing sights and that emotional support is crucial for people after witnessing harrowing incidents.

He said: “All the emergency services, and even the military, have access to psychological support services to help people that have had to deal with their experiences. So now that SAIF has established SAIFSupport, it’s important that funeral directors and their staff use this valuable service to help them if they need support.”

Darren said his disaster pack is standing by and ready to use in his office: “It’s probably gathering dust by now… which is a blessing really, but it’s there if we need it.”

Tags: , , , , ,