Using NamUs for Critical Incident Responses: an Interview with Todd Matthews

Most of us may immediately think about the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) when dealing with the obvious application – when an unidentified body has been found or when a person goes missing.

But what about other incidents? Like a plane crash? Or a natural disaster like Hurrican Katrina? Can NamUs be a resource in those instances?

We spoke with Todd Matthews, Director of NamUs Communications and Case Management, to learn how local law enforcement and emergency response agencies can utilize this resource.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Let’s start with some basic terminology, so when you say critical incident, what does that include?

Todd Matthews: To me, a critical incident includes natural disasters, man-made disasters, even acts of terrorism. At any point when a larger number of people become displaced or injured, or deceased. It can be a shooting, a hurricane, or a tornado. It can be another 9/11. It’s where you need some overall management system that helps bring all of these services together to help track and identify potential victims of a disaster.

JCH: So expanding on that then, what is the NamUs critical incident program? What does that include?

Todd:  Sometimes in a critical incident, you’ll have a lot of conflicting numbers. For example, you’ll hear a news reporter say there were 313 people missing and later they come back and it’s 39. Here’s how that happens. Red Cross gets a number, a local agency gets a number, another agency gets a number. Sometimes all those numbers are added up. Sometimes they include duplicates. Sometimes they don’t.

NamUs can actually alleviate that.  If agencies or even the public enter the missing individuals or unidentified bodies into NamUs, we can address some of the double counting issues. So for example, if we were to have a tornado here in my area,  my mom can report me missing to Red Cross, my dad can report me missing to the local agency and then my wife might report me missing to somebody else. Those are three different reports, but it’s not three different people. So NamUs can support critical incidents as a “fusion critical lab,” so the duplication would be taken away.

JCH: NamUs then becomes that central repository of potentially missing people during a critical incident?

Todd Matthews: Yes. And it’s a program powered by NamUs: it’s the same technology, the same screens. Hopefully, people would already be familiar with it.  There are differences when you’re dealing with hot cases opposed to a cold case. But we are listening to the needs of people. We’re building the resources within NamUs to help people to identify “what’s important to me, what do I need to know? What does the governor need to know? What does the public need to know about those events?”


JCH: So let’s connect the dots, let’s walk through this. When most of us think about critical incidents, we might think of a workplace shooting or a plane crash or a mass casualty, like a movie theater shooting or a hurricane. A missing person may not necessarily be the first thing that we think about when we think about when planning for those types of disasters. 

Todd: A lot of the critical incident is going to be the casualties, that’s the first thing. You know you have a body, you know you have somebody here that has been injured or possibly killed in this event. I don’t think a critical incident would be used as often in a shooting, something that has been wrapped up very quickly, but things that are more disastrous and broader.

So it’s going to be a little different when you’re talking about a shorter situation than a situation that’s far more massive and involves multiple jurisdictions. A shooting can happen in a single jurisdiction and they pretty much got it. With the missing persons case, NamUs is not the first place you go with a missing person, it’s not the first place you got with an unidentified. It is ultimately where you end up if you don’t resolve it using your resources.

It’s the same with the critical incident. If it involves multiple jurisdictions, crossover, we have people displaced from here and they end up there, you have to have a system like NamUs critical incident, it’s more of a national scale program where you can zoom out and start coordinating all these agencies. But they all act independently of each other.

JCH: So the critical incident functionality of NamUs sounds like it then becomes some master list of everybody that could potentially be missing during a very confusing time of a natural disaster of an emergency situation?

Todd: That is our intention. We’ve got a ways to go before we figure it out exactly what it needs to look like. But we have some experts in our corner that have experienced this before and they know what they need, we just need to figure out what everybody needs. It’s important not just to the medical examiner, but the agency. But then what does mom need to know? Does she need to know that I’ve reported my child that’s potentially in this area and I can’t get a hold of him?

We had this with the Gatlinburg fire. Some of the cell phones didn’t work. And I dealt with that locally, not through NamUs but in talking to the medical examiners who were responding to the bodies. We helped the best way that we could —  so we would connect them to other people — resources they needed. So for example, if you need a forensic odontologist, I have one, so they’re available to you.


JCH: When agencies are looking at their emergency response plans and thinking through those, maybe they’re training, maybe they’re dusting off the emergency response plan every five years so they’re in the process of revisiting those plans. What would you recommend they do in terms of adapting their plans to incorporate NamUs’s critical incident resources?

Todd: I think right now being familiar with NamUs, just out of curiosity, is a good place to start. I think some law enforcement agencies should start incorporating it into their training, instead of reactively, be proactive.

JCH: Is part of this conversation that law enforcement agencies should be reaching across to other agencies that could potentially be involved in these critical incident events and coming to an understanding of how are we going to handle that missing persons list? Or everybody agreeing from the beginning we’re going to use NamUs as our central repository for this list? Is that part of that process that they need to be thinking through?

Todd: That is part of the process. It’s like getting everybody to use the same program, or the same font. We all need to be using the same terminology, the same language. And it’s not like we’re competing with people: we don’t do what other organizations like Red Cross does. We just want to be more of a coordinator that brings people to the same place, it’s all translated to the same language. We’re all seeing the same information.

JCH: NamUs is going through an update, a change to become more user-friendly and you’re working with experts to identify what pieces of information should be included in NamUs. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Todd: Well we actually did a discovery process with our end-users.  So we spent a long time going through all of that data, decided what we’d like to have and now we’re going through the process of sprint review, looking at things. You build a small little portion, you come back, get feedback.

JCH: And making it easy for the end user ultimately to be able to use it.

Todd: Yeah because we have found with 1.0 there are some user issues. The system can, based on the parameters, geography, chronology, and physical characteristics, it can just match. Some agencies use that, some agencies don’t. Some agencies don’t know that feature exists. But that’s the technology with 1.0 that’s not been fully exploited by the investigative agencies.

How can I make sure that in 2.0 that you use it? It has to be more intuitive. In the meantime, we can still show agencies how to use this system. We’ll have some agencies say, “I want to know everything this can do. Show me all the bells and whistles,” and some just want to put their cases in and then rely on our team to come back and help solve the case and move it along. It depends whether the agency is really busy.  There’s just so many factors in it, there’s no one standard operating procedure for NamUs that applies to everybody. We kind of have to assess the agency’s need and provide what they don’t have.



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