When tragedy strikes, Jeff Caldwell’s phone may ring. In addition to his role as professor in Humber’s Funeral Director programs, Caldwell is a member of a global emergency response team organization that deals primarily with airline disasters. He’s the Team Manager for the Canadian component of the organization, a team of approximately 20 professionals with various skillsets: licensed funeral directors like Caldwell, forensic odontologists, forensic anthropologists, and more.
“People from all over the globe are part of this organization, and everyone is on call,” Caldwell explains. “If something happens, they put together a team as quickly as possible, fly us to wherever we’re needed, and we hit the ground running.”
Caldwell was on the ground at the Flight 302 crash site in Ethiopia for about three weeks in March, working alongside local and international government, police, and airline officials to take charge of the situation. For the first four days, he met with family members whose loved ones were aboard Flight 302, answering any questions they had, talking about the reality of what had happened, and collecting DNA samples to match remains.
His role later shifted and he ultimately participated wherever necessary: recovery, sorting personal belongings and aircraft parts, processing information, working in the mortuary, and offering psychological support services to anyone who may need them.
“There is an end goal, in an operation like this,” Caldwell says. “That’s getting remains and personal effects returned to families, if they so wish. How that is done is unique to every situation. There is a lot of thinking outside the box to get these tasks completed.”
Team members are sorted by their area of expertise, and Caldwell credits Humber for his ability to contribute to the team in so many aspects. “The skillset and material we teach at Humber has been able to serve me well and get me to where I am now,” he says. A graduate of the Funeral Director program at Humber (one of only two schools in Ontario recognized by the provincial regulator to provide the educational requirements towards licensing in the Bereavement Sector), he’s been teaching within the program for twenty years, now specializing in subjects he’s passionate about: jurisprudence, restorative art and cosmetology.
Caldwell became connected to the response team organization through a former student in Humber’s Funeral Services program. A team member themselves, they approached Caldwell and suggested he consider joining. That same student ended up contributing to the Disaster Preparedness course curriculum, providing a guest lecture comprised of case study material gathered from his own experiences with the response team.
When Flight 302’s case is closed, Caldwell will be able to do the same—he has permission to share photographs and his experience on the ground with his students. “It will be really beneficial,” he says. “Being able to show relevant, current information makes it more real. Our students need to consider how they may be involved with major accidents or disasters, and how it may affect them. They need to be able to manage, and know that they’re taking care of themselves throughout.”
Caldwell plans to return to the site toward the end of June. “There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done,” he says. He notes he’s especially grateful for the support from the Humber community, that allows him to take on new and meaningful challenges while balancing his responsibilities at Humber.
“I’m just amazed at what this job has afforded me over the last twenty years that I’ve been here,” Caldwell says. “The skillsets and relationships within our industry that it’s helped me build, and now the international opportunities as well. It’s incredible.”