Coweta prepares in case of 'mass fatality' event

by Sarah Fay Campbell

It’s not the kind of thing anybody wants to think about happening, but natural disasters, airplane crashes, or mass shootings can result in large numbers of fatalities.

In a situation like that, dealing with the deceased in an efficient and respectful way can be difficult or impossible unless a plan is put in place.

That’s why Coweta County now has a mass fatality plan. The plan was a joint effort of the Coweta County Coroner's Office, Coweta County Emergency Management, and District Four Public Health, with the input of local hospitals and funeral homes.

“The Mass Fatality Plan is a great thing,” said Coweta Coroner Richard Hawk. “It’s going to help out if there ever is a mass fatality here. It’s not if, it’s when,” he said.

With Coweta being on the interstate and on the flight path of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, as well as the Newnan-Coweta and Peachtree City airports, and having multiple railroad lines, it’s only a matter of time.

“I hate to think of it like that,” Hawk said but “it’s a good thing that we are going to be prepared.”

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Hawk said of the plan. “It’s a big undertaking. We’ve been working on it for a while.”

There’s no minimum number of deaths to constitute a mass fatality. It doesn’t take many to overload a system.

Coweta is the first county in the 12-county Region 4 to complete its plan, said Emergency Management Director Jay Jones.

The plan lays out how the county would respond to various types of mass fatalities, ranging from pandemics to traffic accidents. It lays out locations for temporary morgues, for instance. It also delegates responsibilities.

“We take all those things into consideration to develop a plan. We’re just trying to address that particular need if it happens, so that we don’t get caught in situation” without being prepared, Jones said.

It wouldn’t take that many fatalities to overwhelm Coweta’s morgue. The new morgue, which recently opened in the Creekside Industrial Park, is only set up to handle three bodies right now.

“I’ve been at maximum capacity three times this week,” Hawk said on Friday. One day, there were five bodies at one time.

Capacity will be improved somewhat thanks to a grant from the Georgia Hospital Association. The grant will pay for a mortuary rack system that holds 12 bodies. However, the grant doesn’t cover the trays for the system or a lifter that allows it to be used to full capacity. The system comes with one tray.

“I’m going to budget for the other trays this coming year. Hopefully they’ll approve it,” Hawk said.

The morgue could “hold up to 20 if we do it right,” he said.

Jones was at a meeting of the Georgia Hospital Association when he heard about the grant. The funding comes from the Healthcare Preparedness Program. Jones said that Hawk had reached out to him to see if any grants were available for the system. Jones submitted requests for the rack, trays and lift, but there was only enough grant money for the rack. The total cost was $13,395.

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