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Indian River State College Hosts Mass Casualty Training Exercise at Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex

IRSC hosted an exercise for the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System known as FEMORS. A FEMORS team includes specialists from across the state who respond to disasters in which human remains need to be identified.
IRSC hosted an exercise for the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System known as FEMORS. A FEMORS team includes specialists from across the state who respond to disasters in which human remains need to be identified.

Fort Pierce - Tuesday December 12, 2023: More than 150 mortuary and forensic professionals from law enforcement and other organizations across Florida gathered December 5-7 at the Indian River State College (IRSC) Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex (TCPSTC) for a mass casualty training exercise. Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response Systems (FEMORS) designed the mass fatality scenario and, throughout the event, demonstrated their knowledge and expertise to handle mass fatality incidents. 

“A mass casualty event is any event with human fatalities that overwhelms the capacities and abilities of the local resources,” said Dr. Jason Byrd, FEMORS Commander. 

More than 150 of a total team of 224 FEMORS members participated in the training exercise, Byrd said. Members of the team are required to participate in this annual training at least once every two years to remain active, he said. The training is offered yearly at locations throughout the state. A smaller, table-top event was held at the College last year. 

Joan Rivera, Assistant Professor for IRSC Public Service Education, who worked with FEMORS to bring the event to IRSC, the TCPSTC is the perfect place for FEMORS disaster training. “I would love for them to come every year,” River said, “as it provides an opportunity for our public safety partners and public safety students to see mass fatality recovery and processing in action. I hope next year we can expand the training to include additional areas at our complex to really challenge their capabilities further.” 

Participants include Sheriff’s Office deputies, National Guard investigators, police investigators and evidence specialists, medical legal death investigators, crime scene investigators, mortuary officers, forensic odontologists, pathologists, anthropologists, evidence specialists, and human remains detection canine teams from across Florida, said Dr. Lerah Sutton, Deputy Incident Commander of FEMORS and Director of Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine. 

“It has been great,” Sutton said. “Joan Rivera has been tremendous in offering us all these resources. It’s a fantastic facility and we are very grateful to be here.” 

During the exercise, human remains were staged in the TCPSTC's Disaster Village, where the National Guard’s Recovery Team and the Human Remains Detection Canine Teams worked to locate the staged remains. The National Guard Recovery Team then recovered the remains and transported them to the Disaster Portable Morgue Unit (DPMU). The remains were then processed through several stations, including fingerprinting, anthropology, DNA, odontology, pathology, photography and X-rays. 

The information that was gathered at the DPMU is sent to the Morgue Information Center (MIC) and compared with information gathered at the Victim Information Center (VIC) from family members and friends of missing individuals. That information is then sent to the MIC, which compares the two sets of information to see if there are any potential matches. Potential matches are presented to the local medical examiner’s office for verification. Once the medical examiner has signed off on a match, the family is notified, and efforts begin to return the remains to the family members. 

The December 5 training was for specialists: odontologists, (also called forensic dentists), K9 teams, and the Morgue Information Center (MIC) and Victim Information Center (VIC) teams. The next two days were for the entire team. 

FEMORS training uses real human remains donated from the State Anatomical Donation Program. The remains then are used for further training at the University of Florida in Gainesville. 

FEMORS team members were deployed after Hurricane Ian struck Florida’s southwest coast on Sept. 28, 2002, causing 150 casualties there, as well as five casualties in Cuba and five in North Carolina. Prior to that, the team was deployed to Surfside, a suburb of Miami, after the Champlain Towers South condominiums partially collapsed at 1:22 a.m. on June 24, 2021, killing 98 people. 

“Any time that a local resource—a medical examiner’s office anywhere in the state of Florida—asks us for assistance, that’s when we get activated,” Sutton said. 

Local District 19 Medical Examiner Patricia A. Aronica and her team participated in the mass casualty event, along with local emergency managers. “Other members of local emergency service agencies are here to observe and see how they can incorporate FEMORS into their own training and emergency plans,” Rivera said. IRSC Public Service students and faculty also came to observe and ask questions, Rivera said. 

“FEMOR team members are extremely hard hard-working and what they do for the communities that have been impacted by mass fatalities is just phenomenal,” Rivera added. “The capabilities they bring to the table you can’t really imagine until you see them in action. Being able to host them here is an honor because they serve the community after tremendous impact. They come in and they help give the community closure by identifying the remains and connecting them back to the families. You can’t put a price tag on that.” 

“Our paramount concern is doing this with respect and dignity for the sake of the families and getting the families the answers,” said Larry Bedore, former Commander of FEMORS and Logistics Chief for the training event. “We have two arms to what we do—we have a list of missing persons and we have a list of bodies. And we have to match column A and column B.” Recovery efforts after hurricanes are particularly challenging because hurricanes destroy the infrastructure, so you have no internet until the phones are back up, Bedore said. “It’s a bit more challenging than after something like the condo collapse in Miami Beach,” he said. 

FEMORS was born shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001. Law enforcement leaders began to question their own abilities to respond to mass casualty events in their own jurisdictions. Then-governor Jeb Bush marshalled all Florida law enforcement agencies to create what would eventually be named Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response Systems, which launched on July 1, 2002. Bedore was its first Commander. 

FEMORS was one of the first state-level mass fatality response teams in existence. Since that time, FEMORS has developed a robust response capability with the resources necessary to respond anywhere in the state of Florida within hours. 

FEMORS is funded by the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) with federal grants, Bedore said. The University of Florida (UF) oversees management of those funds and of the program. Upon activation, the team members become temporary employees of UF under the FDOH and are provided compensation, Worker’s Compensation, travel pay and liability insurance, he said.