Tal Simmons with animal bones donated to VCU from the Search and Rescue Tracking Institute.
Tal Simmons with animal bones donated to VCU from the Search and Rescue Tracking Institute. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Search and rescue group gets training in bone identification with VCU professor

Members are trained to look for clothing on bushes or broken tree limbs but don’t have as much experience identifying and documenting human remains.

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Last year, search and rescue volunteers were called to a remote area of Virginia to look for human remains as part of a law enforcement investigation. One of the searchers stumbled upon some bones, and thought they might be the person. Nearby, other bones were discovered. It later turned out that some of the bones were from a bear but it did create some confusion for the team.

That and other experiences led Jim Russell, director of the Search and Rescue Tracking Institute, a human tracking team located in Virginia, to organize a training session at Virginia Commonwealth University over the summer. The institute is made up of search and rescue volunteers from across the commonwealth, and Russell wanted his institute team to be better trained in forensic science. Through a contact, he was connected with Tal Simmons, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU. She is a forensic anthropologist who specializes in understanding decomposition of the human body after death.

Simmons has traveled the world and worked at the intersection of forensic science and human atrocities since the late 1990s. She served as the director of the Forensic Monitoring Project in Bosnia for the Physicians for Human Rights, where she and others investigated mass graves from the Yugoslavian civil war.

“The discipline has been around for a long time,” Simmons said. “It's something I enjoy doing. I prefer the human rights and humanitarian aspects of things overall.”

Training in the classroom and the field

Russell said most search and rescue efforts involve a missing person. Teams are trained to look for clothing on bushes or broken tree limbs. They do not have as much experience identifying and documenting human remains.

The VCU training was held over two days in August. The first day began in the classroom and ended at Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield County and gave search and rescue professionals a chance to investigate a mock crime scene with human remains. The second day was in the classroom and lab and focused on bone identification. 

“We had a great training,” Russell said. “It was a great pairing that brought all of our resources together.”

Search and Rescue Tracking Institute members have received training at Radford University, Western Carolina University and most recently at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Russell said. “Having found Dr. Simmons, we're excited that we've found a resource for a variety of forensic training here in the center of Virginia.”

In Virginia, search and rescue operations function on a voluntary basis under the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, which activates teams as needed by localities. “When local authorities in charge of search and rescue in their locality require help, they can contact VDEM and request free search and rescue resources,” Russell said. “VDEM will then activate as many [search and rescue] teams as necessary to complete the mission, but the local authorities are still the authority having jurisdiction.” 

When Russell reached out to Simmons, she sent him several syllabi from previous trainings and courses. They talked about the options and settled on the two-day course. They wanted to focus on areas where Simmons could teach the team the most.

“Animal bones frequently come in with my cases, because it's difficult for people who aren't intimately familiar with the human skeleton to tell the difference,” Simmons said.

The class also taught participants about the various stages of human development. Infant bones look very different from teenage bones. The goal was to give search and rescue team members hands-on experience with the various types of bones they might encounter during a forensic investigation.

Out in the field, a crime scene was set up where fake human bones were placed on the ground. The teams learned about photography and note taking. Simmons wanted them to understand best practices for evaluating a crime scene, like having a good camera as opposed to trying to document with a cellphone. 

Donating collection

Russell brought a collection of animal bones for the training. He had used the bones before and thought they would be helpful. Much to his surprise, VCU did not have a large collection of animal bones, so he donated several boxes. He plans to donate more in the future.

“I have agreed to put a collection together for the forensic anthropology lab,” Russell said. “And so I delivered, I think, the first five or six boxes of bones at that class. Right now, I'm working on continuing to build that collection for VCU, which I'm really excited about doing.”

Russel said the institute and Simmons are talking about doing more training. Several members missed the initial session and some subjects were not covered. The goal is to get his team members thinking about the challenges of recovering human remains.

“We've talked a little about maybe doing some entomology classes to determine what kind of bugs would have an effect on the human body as it's decomposing,” Russell said. “So another thing that we want to know is if a person has been deceased for a week, what condition are we really expecting to find? What are we expecting to walk in on?”

The organization is looking at updating its documentation and some of the training with Simmons might be incorporated into the new documents. Simmons is also talking about having one of the members speak to her class about search and rescue.

“I think both days were pretty successful,” Simmons said. “We had a really good two days together.”