What is DVI? Disaster Victim Identification explained.

July 25th 2014

What is DVI? Disaster Victim Identification explainedDisaster Victim Identification (DVI) is the formal process whereby multiple individuals who have died as a result of a single incident have their identity established through the application of scientifically proven techniques.

The nature of most mass fatality incidents means that visual recognition is rarely an appropriate option, and even in those situations when the deceased have not been significantly traumatised, there are numerous accounts of erroneous visual identifications being made by distressed family members. This is such a well-known complication of mass fatality incidents that the use of visual recognition as a means to establish identity is prohibited in many countries, and acceptable identification evidence is restricted to that obtained from robust medical and scientific processes.

The magnitude of multiple fatality events and the availability of resources significantly inform the approach to the identification process. In some jurisdictions it may be feasible to attempt a full DVI response for several hundreds or thousands of victims, whilst in others a few dozen victims may place an excessive burden on the available resources. Calculations of this nature are always necessary prior to the commencement of an identification operation. It is far better to not start at all rather than discovering that once started, and after raising the hopes of all of the victims’ family members, that the process cannot be completed due to lack of money, infrastructure, or expertise.

Black Saturday 2009 - DVI Operation

Forensic specialists working on the DVI operation for the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires at VIFM.

If it is decided that DVI is not possible, this does not mean that the only other option available is the piteous anonymity of an unmarked mass burial. There are well-developed protocols for management of large numbers of deceased individuals that allow the possibility of identification should resources and technology subsequently become available. These methods are described in the manual produced by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Pan American Health Organisation entitled “Management of Dead Bodies after Disasters – A field manual for first responders”. This manual is available on the Web in multiple languages.

As technology and logistical capability increase, larger mass fatality events are becoming more amenable to full DVI operations. An example of this was seen in the identification of the over 5000 victims who died in Thailand during the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. Without the development of the Interpol DVI protocols, and more specifically the computer software and hardware to deal with such large numbers, this operation would not have been possible. If this incident had occurred even a decade previously, it is doubtful that such an operation would have been attempted. The identification of the Tsunami victims represents the largest single- incident DVI operation conducted to date.

Some incidents are too large for any realistic attempt at scientific identification. An example of this is the massive earthquake which devastated the city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on the 12th of January 2010. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere with 80% of the population living beneath the poverty line. Most government infrastructure was destroyed in the earthquake, there were hundreds of thousands of sick and homeless who needed to be cared for, and despite the presence of several international DVI teams willing to help, there were neither the resources nor the political will to undertake such a monumental task. The vast majority of the 200,000 victims of this incident were buried in haphazardly dug mass graves. It must be recognised that even had this incident occurred in a developed society such as Australia, it is doubtful that available resources would be sufficient to allow a DVI operation of this magnitude to proceed.
The recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (November 8th 2013) is also instructive. Although the death toll (estimated) was somewhere in the order of 5000-8000 individuals, and conceivably amenable to a formal DVI approach given the similar number of people killed in the Thailand tsunami of 2004, almost nothing was achieved in terms of identification. Several factors can account for this: the geographical nature of the country itself in that it consists of hundreds of difficult to access and remote islands; the almost complete destruction of all public infrastructure (as of this writing – 3 months after the event – only 3-5% of homes have power reconnected in the affected areas); the overwhelming needs of the living victims; and, the lack of understanding and political will amongst the controlling authorities.

Clearly, in order to deal with scenarios such as Haiti and the Philippines, significant advances in technology, science, and logistics will be required if there is to be any chance of successfully implementing formal DVI processes within an acceptable time frame.

Site of the 2002 Bali Bombings

Site of the 2002 Bali Bombings

The experience in Australia with large DVI operations includes the identification of the victims of the Bali bombings in 2002 (202 victims, 88 of them Australian citizens), the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, and most recently, the Black Saturday Bushfires in February 2009 (164 deceased). Both of these disasters were managed using the Interpol DVI system. Those interested in a detailed analysis of the modern DVI process and a fuller explanation of the DVI response to the Black Saturday Bushfire disaster are encouraged to consult the Forensic Science International Journal Special Edition – Forensic medical response to the 2009 Victorian Bushfire Disaster (Volume 205, No’s 1-3, February 2011).

The modern DVI process involves an array of medical/scientific and policing specialties, and for large incidents (greater than 50-100 victims) requires substantial organisation and logistical support. The international policing body Interpol has devoted extensive resources to the development of protocols for DVI coordination. The process, forms and computer software that have been developed, and which have been adopted by many countries across the world, is by far the most sophisticated multiple victim identification protocol known to exist. Australia first used the Interpol system on a large scale during the response to the Bali bombings in October 2002, and the system was further developed and enhanced during the DVI response after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Yearly meetings of the Interpol DVI steering committee continue to refine and improve the existing protocols and ensure that developments in technology are evaluated and included.

The current DVI operation just beginning in the wake of the MH17 air disaster involving 298 victims will use Interpol protocols and will be carried out by an International team of forensic police and medical specialists including; pathologists, odontologists, anthropologists, mortuary technical specialists, molecular biologists, fingerprint experts, and crime scene examiners. These practitioners are familiar with the Interpol protocols, and will be experienced people well able to deal with the stresses of such a difficult undertaking. All are dedicated to the task of reuniting the victims with their families as quickly as circumstances permit. . Nevertheless, the nature of the incident and subsequent difficulties in gaining access to, and examination of, the crash scene, are likely to complicate and potentially compromise the identification process.

Black Saturday Bushfire damage.

Aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires, Kinglake, Victoria.


The Interpol DVI system – An Overview:

Interpol established the first working party on Disaster Victim Identification in 1982. This was in recognition of the many difficulties associated with the identification of victims of a single incident who were citizens of multiple countries. The incident that provided the stimulus for this working party was a fuel tank explosion in Spain in 1978 that killed 200 people from a variety of European countries.

The difficulties experienced in identifying the victims of this disaster highlighted the need for a set of internationally recognised and agreed guiding principles.
The first Interpol Guide to Disaster Victim identification was produced in 1984, and the standing committee responsible for its production still meets annually in order to update and improve the document, often in light of recent disaster experience and the various issues encountered.

The Interpol DVI guide offers responders a system for recording data relating to the personal identification of multiple deceased individuals. The forms are designed to be used by multiple specialties and agencies so that all of the information relating to each person is encapsulated on a single form with a unique identifying number. There are separate forms for entry of ante-mortem information (data relating to a missing person) and post-mortem information (data relating to a deceased person). Once all the relevant data fields in all of the forms are completed, a reconciliation process attempts to match ante-mortem and post-mortem information, leading to the identification of the deceased individuals. When hundreds or thousands of individual ante-mortem and post-mortem records need to be reconciled, this can be an extremely complex and time consuming task.

The conduct of a DVI operation is divided into five distinct phases, each with its own area of responsibility and coordination. The phases are as follows:

1. Phase 1 – Scene examination and body recovery
2. Phase 2 – Mortuary
3. Phase 3 – Ante-Mortem record collection
4. Phase 4 – Reconciliation
5. Phase 5 – Debrief

This breakdown into phases does not imply that each follows the other in chronological order. Often phases are running concurrently, such as post-mortem examinations being conducted at the same time as the collection of ante-mortem information. In general terms, phase 1 is coordinated by DVI trained police crime scene personnel, phase 2 by mortuary personnel, phase 3 by police who are familiar with interviewing the family members of missing persons, and phase 4 is generally coordinated by a Coroner or equivalent judicial authority.


Various forensic medical specialists contribute to each of these phases, and the nature and extent of each contribution is largely determined by the type of incident. . Because identification by dental record comparison plays such a large role in most DVI operations, in nations with good dental record keeping policies, it is common for forensic odontologists to be heavily involved in all phases of the DVI process.



Anyone requiring further information or assistance regarding the MH17 disaster is encouraged to phone the DFAT hotline on 1300 555 135 within Australia or +61 2 6261 3305 from overseas.

The Victorian Government stands ready to provide assistance to affected families and to the Commonwealth following this tragedy.

VIFM Media Contact: Deb Withers – deb @ debwithers.com or 0417 398 448