Lab on Loan

When the crime lab flooded, an NFSTC mobile laboratory saved the day


     A call to the International Association for Identification led him to the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), which has six deployable forensic laboratories for agencies to borrow. NFSTC's Chris Vivian says the labs address a variety of needs such as:

  • A deployable laboratory can be beneficial when crime scene personnel need to spend a lot of time working at a crime scene in a remote area.
  • A terrorist act requires forensic analysts to work 24/7.
  • A natural disaster destroys or nearly destroys an agency's crime laboratory.
  • A lab is behind with its work and additional lab space would help reduce a backlog.
  • An agency hires a large number of new staff and needs space to conduct hands-on training.

     The laboratories were developed with the Department of Defense and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and delivered to NFSTC in fall 2007. They are loaned to agencies for free under a National Institute of Justice grant.

     When Clark heard the word "free," he was ecstatic. He didn't think the chief would believe they could get an 8-foot by 20-foot by 8.5-foot lab module for free. With the sides pulled out, the lab provides 400 square feet of dust-proof and light-proof workspace. It has an access-controlled entryway, data-sharing capabilities and a generator.

Equipping the lab

     The inside of the lab is empty — ready to house any forensic discipline or in a situation like Cedar Rapids' — three or four people tasked with more than one discipline.

     Clark visited NFSTC in Largo, Fla., and looked at a display module to get ideas for equipment to buy for use in both the temporary laboratory and later in the restored permanent crime laboratory. Having experienced a flood, Clark looks at technology differently. For example, he considers ductless fume hoods a necessity.

     "If another flood comes, we just unplug them, cart them out onto a trailer and set up shop at the next place," he says. "We need to do what we can internally to avoid a complete shutdown if we flood again."

Looking ahead

     Cedar Rapids started using the deployable lab in October 2008. Clark, who was promoted from the Crime Scene Unit to Planning and Development in March, is hoping reconstruction on the permanent laboratory can begin in the fall. Cedar Rapids signed an agreement saying they needed to borrow the module from NFSTC for 1 year, but realistically Clark says it might be longer.

     Months after the flood, the police department is still realizing its losses. When the citizens' police academy asked the ID Bureau to do a presentation, personnel discovered their teaching aids and fingerprint card collection were gone.

     "You're always looking for something you had," he says. "You forget about the little things that were always there that you didn't ever think about. It's traumatic to lose all that — yet there's still the pressure of doing a good forensic investigation. Defense attorneys are not going to give you any breaks because you were flooded. They're going to use that to their advantage."

     Finding a place that is both secure and safe to process evidence wasn't easy for Cedar Rapids.

     "What follows a disaster is made worse by not knowing where to turn for help," he says.

     Clark hopes other agencies learn about the deployable forensic laboratory so that if something happens to their lab, they have a plan B.

     "We didn't know that something like this was available," he says. "We're glad it was. The lab has really been a lifesaver."

     Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

Saving wet evidence after a disaster

     Most often law enforcement agencies call Munters, a large property damage restoration company, for help when there's been a fire or natural disaster (a flood, a hurricane or tornado, for example).

     "Our goal is to get them items they can continue to use as possible evidence," says James Gilbert, national account manager for Munters document restoration services. "We control the damage to prevent it from getting worse."

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