The primary function of the Institute’s Forensic Investigations and Emergency Management (FIEM) Division is to conduct death investigations in accordance with Article 49.25 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
The Institute’s forensic investigators respond to scenes of death and conduct investigations over the phone for deaths that occur in healthcare settings. In each case, investigators gather preliminary circumstantial and historical information about the deceased individual from law enforcement, family and medical personnel. At a scene, forensic investigators conduct a preliminary physical examination of a body including the collection and preservation of physical and biological evidence for further forensic investigation and testing. Investigators document their findings with photographs and a variety of measurements and readings, and develop a written summary of their findings for review by a forensic pathologist.
In accordance with the policies and procedures set forth by the Executive Director and Chief Medical Examiner and designees, the FIEM staff manage the secure transport and receipt of deceased individuals and associated evidence and/or property to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. The division is also responsible for the notification of the next of kin.
The Institute’s forensic investigators maintain diverse areas of specialized undergraduate and graduate education and expertise, including forensic science, criminal justice, forensic anthropology, forensic entomology, and forensic nursing.
Death investigation requires timely response and as a result, the division is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Through its Victim’s Assistance Service, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science helps families during the initial crises of death by providing extended services.
The Victim’s Assistance Service is staffed by licensed masters-level social workers to serve as the primary contact for families regarding deaths that fall under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner and to provide families with guidance to victim’s service agencies and appropriate social support groups within the community. All suggested services are nonprofit and in close geographic proximity to families in need.
Click here to learn more about assistance available to families.
The victim’s assistance specialist is also available to respond to and assist forensic investigators at scenes of death. At a scene, the victim’s assistance specialist is able to help family members in person and to serve as a liaison between the family and the investigator in obtaining information critical to the investigation of a death.
The Institute, through its Victim’s Assistance Service, also partners with area chaplaincy organizations to provide in-person death notifications. The chaplains, who are volunteers with local law enforcement agencies, are able to deliver in-person, face-to-face death notifications with sensitivity and respect for the deceased and their families.
The mission of the Forensic Emergency Management Team is to ensure that the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences is prepared to respond to any disaster or incident that does or has the potential to disrupt the agency’s capacity to perform its function. This includes incidents that may result in a surge in the number and complexity of fatalities.
The Institute is unique among medical examiners offices in that it has integrated its Emergency Management and Forensic Investigation functions (two typically distinct functions). This integration incorporates a forward-looking emergency management perspective into the day-to-day operations of the death investigation process in the interest of maximizing the efficiency of daily operations and the emergency preparedness of the Institute as a whole. The integration results in timelier scene response, enhanced inter-agency cooperation and better overall disaster response preparedness.
The FIEM division has developed plans, trainings, and exercises to prepare the Institute to respond to a variety of incidents, including hurricanes, floods, and mass fatality incidents. The Institute’s forensic investigators are regularly incorporated into trainings and exercises along with responders from local and regional agencies to ensure our ability to work together as a team when the need arises.
In spring 2013, the region acquired a Disaster Portable Morgue Unit (DPMU) to provide the space and equipment required for mobile morgue operations. This unit is available statewide as well as within Harris County to provide full-scale morgue services should an incident occur that damages the Institute’s facility, has the potential for contamination, or requires morgue operations to be located in close proximity to an incident site.
Click below to view a time-lapse video of the DPMU set up in the span of approximately six hours.
DPMU News Coverage:
Harris County unveils new portable morgue unit KHCW/Channel 39, June 17, 2014
(En Español) Preparan morgue móvil para atender desastres Univision/Channel 45, June 18, 2014