New facility to help analysts tackle State's backlog of evidence

News Source: The Alaska Contractor
Publish Date: October 04, 2011

Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory

New facility to help analysts tackle State’s backlog of evidence

By Rindi White


How many construction projects in Alaska require installation of dense impact-resistant steel and Kevlar reinforced rubber to prevent a stray bullet from escaping? Or fume hoods strong enough to allow law enforcement officers to safely make methamphetamine so they can understand what to look for when investigating drug crimes?

Building a scientific crime detection lab is not something Alaska contractors are asked to do frequently. The facility includes a lot of laboratory space and houses a sophisticated air system that ensures both the safety of lab analysts and the integrity of crime scene evidence. It’s not something every contractor is qualified to do.

But Neeser Construction Inc., which built the state Public Health Lab and Medical Examiner’s Facility in 2001, is familiar with the demands that accompany creating such strictly controlled environments.

“It’s a real fun building to build,” said Sam Adams, senior superintendent at Neeser Construction and field located project manager of the $87.5 million state crime lab project. “It’s a complicated building, and coordinating all the systems to work together is a challenge.”

Neeser was selected in 2008 to build the new Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory near East Tudor Road in Anchorage. The project is on schedule to open in June 2012. The new 84,000-squarefoot building will replace the 1986-era 19,200-square-foot scientific crime lab located at 5500 E. Tudor Road.

Adams, in August, said the project was nearly 60 percent complete. Workers are landscaping and enclosing the building so work can progress throughout the winter.

“We’re working on interior finishes and casework and (installing) equipment. The flooring is scheduled to come in another month and a half. Paving is complete. We’re probably 50 to 60 percent done with the landscaping and will be done in the next two weeks,” Adams said.

While coordinating the highly efficient mechanical systems, which take up 20 percent of the building space, has been a challenge, other parts of the building have been really interesting to build, he said.

Like the 1,225-square-foot firing range, an 8-inch concrete walls and ceiling coated in Kevlar-reinforced rubber panels. The range includes a ballistics laboratory and professional light rails so courtroom-quality photos can be taken easily. It’s also outfitted with a ballistic baffle system on the walls and ceiling to reduce noise both in the range and to the surrounding offices. And it has an advanced air system that cleans the air in the range, for the safety of the firearms analysts.

Forensic laboratory manager Orin Dym said one neat — and needed — feature of the firearm and tool laboratory is ample storage space. Investigators are often called on to fire test bullets — he estimated firearms analysts fire about 1,000 rounds a year — but sometimes they only have part of the weapon in question.

“We have a reference library of weapons to recreate (the weapon in question),” Dym said.

The state firearms reference library of about 1,500 weapons is currently “horribly undersized,” Dym said.

The weapons come from forfeitures, at no cost to the state. Although Dym would like to add to the library, the lab currently has no space to do so. The new lab will have space for 10,000 reference weapons, he said.

The firearms and toolmark lab is one of nine being built into the new building. It will also have: a latent prints, or fingerprint analysis, laboratory; a breath alcohol laboratory; a blood alcohol laboratory; a controlled substances or drug laboratory; a biological screening laboratory where evidence is checked to see if blood or other biological material is present; a DNA analysis laboratory; and a DNA data basing laboratory.

The updated DNA laboratories are key features in bringing Alaska’s forensic techniques up to date, Dym said. DNA processing occupies more lab space than any other section in the new building, he said, and for good reason.

Alaska has a higher rate of violent crimes than many other states our size, Dym said. Alaska, on a per-capita basis, has the highest rate of sexual assault and is high in the rankings for other violent crimes. The new lab contains a significant amount of storage space for DNA and other biologic evidence, which a new state law says must be retained for 50 years.

But DNA analysis takes space. Dym said analysts currently use sign-up sheets to use the DNA laboratory and, to maintain integrity of evidence, no more than two analysts are allowed in the lab at once. The cramped space means doing without robotic equipment that automates many of the analysts’ tasks and would speed processing. The state has had access to grant funding to buy two pieces of equipment for analysis but lacks room to install them.

The larger lab space will also increase the number of samples each analyst can process, Dym said. That will allow analysts to eliminate a backlog of unprocessed DNA cases. Although employees have worked hard for four years to bring the evidence up to date, Dym said an 18-month backlog of DNA evidence relating to violent crimes remains.

When those cases are processed, Dym said analysts would tackle the backlog of evidence relating to property crimes cases.

“If you’re sitting with murder cases (to process) you don’t work a burglary. Those are worked in the gaps,” Dym said. Getting the property crimes cases up to date may end up lowering crime rates, he said.

“There’s a 30 percent increase in the success rate of solving property crimes when you employ DNA evidence,” Dym said. “The goal is to be working violent crimes and property crimes all within a 30- to 45-day timeframe.”

The building is designed to accommodate the needs of the state and advances in forensic technology during the next 50 years.

The new lab also contains 17,400 of “shelled-in” lab space that can be quickly put to use if needed, Dym said. And the labs are all movable — counters, tables and other equipment are on wheels instead of being bolted to the floor. A zoned heating and ventilation system will allow spaces to be redesigned without having to shut the hole

building down, which is the case in the existing lab, Dym said.

Dym said he’s been impressed with Neeser Construction’s performance on the project.

“This is the third lab (construction project) I’ve been involved with, and it is the smoothest project I’ve ever seen,” he said. Dym worked in Arizona prior to coming to Alaska four years ago and was involved in two crime lab construction projects there.

Matt Tanaka, project manager for the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said he’s pleased with how the project is progressing. The state

was able to save $5 million by working with Neeser to shorten the construction schedule and finding cost-saving methods in how the project is carried out.

“It’s been one of the most successful projects I’ve worked on,” Tanaka said. “There’s been good team interaction, no surprises. They have excellent control of the project.”

The building is a construction manager/general contractor approach, in which Tanaka hired a design team — Alaska architecture firm Livingston Slone and national forensic science design specialists McLaren, Wilson and Lawrie Inc. — to design the building. Neeser assisted in the design process to refine the project.

“Working with the contractor during design allows you to achieve cost savings,” Tanaka said. Adams said Anchorage-based Udelhoven Oilfield Systems Services is the mechanical contractor, General Mechanical Inc. is installing ductwork, Megawatt Electric LLC is wiring the building, Siemens Building Technologies is installing building controls and Saxton-Bradley Inc. is providing the casework and laboratory equipment