Safety, Security, and Evidence Integrity in the Forensic Workplace

Forensic specialists, whether crime scene investigators or crime lab technicians have greater constraints on their operations than ever before. Some are the result of increased hazards from blood and airborne pathogens including HIV, hepatitis viruses, and TB. Others are “fallout” from incidents where the issues of contamination and storage have become important evidence concerns for court acceptability. Unquestionably, defense attorneys are focusing on the proper protocols of how wet items, blood or other bodily fluids, are handled, processed, dried and stored. OSHA has also warned us to carefully treat and secure these items to protect those who have access to it. Forensic containment systems protect us from the inherent dangers of body fluids and assist us in cross-contamination issues that later may be posed during a trial.

Wet evidence such as damp carpet samples or a bloody blouse must be properly air-dried before packaging and future testing. In years past, it was acceptable to string these items on clotheslines in closets, garages, or empty offices. Seemingly practical at the time, we now know this is dangerous. And you certainly would not want to explain this makeshift system to a jury. Cross-contamination does not happen as often as it is alleged. But by simply challenging the department’s drying and storage procedures a defense attorney can hint that “something may be wrong here”. Fume containment systems are common-sense hardware options for evidence handlers. They are designed specifically for evidence containment, drying, and storage. They simplify your evidence procedures and protect your employees. As for the bottom-line, they are not expensive nor require ducting or special installation.

AirClean Systems, a Creedmoor, NC based manufacturer, specializes in forensic containment products. Unlike other drying systems, DrySafe™ utilizes polypropylene in the cabinet construction. Polypropylene, or more simply, polypro, is an amazingly effective material for this application. Polypro is white throughout and has a permanently glossy finish. It does not stain and can not rust. Importantly, it can easily be disinfected and cleaned to look like new again. Polypro has some unique construction qualities, too. During assembly, polypro is welded, leaving no minute cracks or voids for bacteria infestation. Through this welding process, the interior cabinet becomes an extremely rigid, one-piece unit, insuring that there will be no air leakage. And for anyone near the cabinet during operation, this is very important.

DrySafe™ filters the intake air to protect the evidence, then it filters the air again at the exit port to protect the operator--considerably safer than a clothesline and garage system.

Cabinet construction materials, durability, appearance and assembly are important. But air movement is also of great concern. During operation, the DrySafe™ actually filters the air before it enters the cabinet through electrostatically charged prefilters located in the door. Once the door of the cabinet is shut, only filtered air can enter. This effectively eliminates any concern of evidence contamination from the room airspace. The second phase of filtering occurs before the air is exhausted from the cabinet. A combination of HEPA and bonded carbon filter arrangement ensures that the air released back into the room is safe to breathe. Functionally, DrySafe™ filters the intake air to protect the evidence, then it filters the air again at the exit port to protect the operator--considerably safer than a clothesline and garage system. Drying the evidence may take minutes or hours, but the process is safe, reliable, quiet and you will not have any evidence integrity issues in court, either.

Air movement within the DrySafe™ reduces the time needed to completely dry the evidence before packaging. But during this time, another critical element is addressed. Many items of evidence have the potential for becoming extremely noxious. When the drying cabinet is in a common workspace it is very important that the foul odors be controlled. This problem and the concerns of blood borne pathogens being released into the room are addressed with Chemisorptive bonded filters. These filters effectively capture odors but pose no safety threats like traditional granulated (pellet) type carbon filters.

Finally, evidence security and integrity are guaranteed with a keyed, locking handle. The DrySafe™ utilizes a 3/8” thick locking lexan door coupled with the polypropylene cabinetry. In operation, the locked evidence items are plainly visible, secured, and no one can accidentally interrupt the drying process. This addresses all of the evidence security issues and operator safety concerns. Simply by using the system as intended, you dry the evidence quickly, safely, and with all of the evidence handling protocols that should be followed.

The DrySafe™ is similar to a refrigerator as it features adjustable shelves. Three adjustable shelves, each of which, is foldable, allow for a number of different evidence placement options. Smaller items can be placed on the top shelf while longer items can be suspended. This enables you to maximize the full drying chamber. Another benefit to investigators is that they can safely and readily view the evidence and even photograph it while it is on display. This eliminates the need for it to be handled any more than it has to be.

The DrySafe™ operation is controlled automatically. Set the drying time, lock it and you do not have to monitor it during its operation. Controls are mounted conveniently at a distance that a 5ft. tall person can easily reach. There are two primary control selections. One is for air passage and the other is for the automatic waste pump, which removes liquid from the cabinet. Importantly, this operation is conducted within a sealed structure. One more feature is the audible alarm. This sounds if any of the filters need replacement.

The DrySafe™ evidence cabinet is available in a number of sizes to accommodate your workspace. Depending on your department’s workload, you may only require a single cabinet. A side-by-side dual cabinet is another alternative. Sizes range from the 30-inch wide single chamber to the 96-inch wide double chamber.

AirClean Systems’ ductless fume hoods and workstations have multiple forensic uses. Through the use of brushless, sparkless blower motors, and vapor-proof lighting, a highly safe work area is achieved. The ductless fume hoods provide workstations for crime lab analysts, allowing the replacement of traditional ducted systems, which require ducting installed into the building structure. Similarly, they provide work areas for the crime scene investigator and latent print specialist, who may use these stations for various fingerprint powder and chemical processes. An important advantage of these hoods is their mobility. When mounted on a cart, the hood may be rolled about the facility and used as needed, where needed, and then stored out of the way.

AirClean Systems also produces laminar flow hoods. These hoods are especially of value to serologists working with DNA samples. They ensure that only filtered air crosses the work area, thus protecting the samples from contamination. An optional UV light is available to irradiate the work surface to kill potential cross-contamination.

These drying devices are used extensively by federal and state law enforcement agencies as well as in non-law enforcement applications. DrySafe™ evidence drying cabinets and ductless fume hoods are marketed exclusively in the United States and other countries through Sirchie FingerPrint Labs. Custom designs that will suit your department’s exact needs can be designed at the corporate headquarters in Creedmoor.

Today’s evidence handling of wet, possibly dangerous, and contaminated evidence has changed the protocols of all forensic examiners. Personnel safety, evidence contamination concerns, and security all require that evidence be more thoughtfully and professionally handled. Specially designed air containment equipment such as the DrySafe™ helps the modern facility address the needs of examiner safety and evidence integrity.