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CSI Rochester: Upstate N.Y. Gets $30M Crime Lab

Sun May 22, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Laurie Mercer

There is a natural fascination for forensics that many, perhaps attributed to popular TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. A tour of Monroe County’s new 45,000-sq.-ft. (4,181 sq m), $30 million crime lab satisfies that curiosity about many new and old methods used in sophisticated criminal evidence gathering. It also illustrates emerging green building practices. As a result, the new crime lab is about to earn the county’s Platinum LEED certification.

Monroe County estimates the project has created 400 construction jobs, while green features, credited to delivering significant long-term cost savings and environmental benefits, initially added approximately $700,000 to construction costs.

A quick tour provides a visitor with a realization that fighting crime is a complex, scientific, laboratory-intensive endeavor, and that the lab’s priority is to protect the chain of evidence throughout the process. In the lab dust filtration, vibration dampeners, special airflow, recycled rainwater and design elements are at play in a never-ending battle to help testify against the guilty while proving others innocent.

Securing the Chain of

Evidence From the Get-Go

Securing the chain of evidence begins literally at the door once the vehicle delivering the evidence in question — be it blood, clothing, body fluids, guns, knives, cell phones, computers, navigation systems and hundreds of other items, drives into an entrance on the first floor. The evidence could even be a vehicle. The new, four-story facility significantly raises the bar on fighting crime in Monroe County and the surrounding eight-county area, as well as assisting government agencies including the F.B.I. The facility design offers plenty of room for future growth.

In addition to helping law enforcement, the new facilities save taxpayers money because the building’s design promotes energy efficiency in many ways. The structure also makes a positive architectural statement in downtown Rochester on the busy corner of Plymouth and Broad Streets.

The mission of the Monroe County Public Safety Laboratory is to “provide analytical, scientific, and other forensic and administrative support to law enforcement agencies and to the criminal justice system at large in order to assist with enforcement of laws and regulations of the state of New York and the United States of America. The best of what is currently known about forensic science is in use every day.”

The building also demonstrates the emerging field of green engineering as the project’s team members seek LEED Platinum accreditation. In just one example of sustainability, rainwater is harvested from the roof, recycled and used for janitorial duties and to flush toilets/urinals.

The building also takes advantage of a heat island effect on roof and non-roof surfaces and is designed with exterior light reduction technology. Fuel-efficient vehicles and car poolers are rewarded with preferred parking spots. Reinhard L. Gsellmeier, assistant engineering operations manager of the County’s Department of Environment Services, said, “Constructing a green building we believe is important for the environment, to conserve energy, and for the comfort of the people who come to work here every day.”

LEED Platinum status requires a minimum of 52 points on a scale that rewards credits for more than four-dozen different aspects in design and construction. Just a few issues awarded points are: construction activity pollution prevention, design innovation, green power, outdoor air delivery, on-site renewable energy, heat island effect, rainwater harvesting and much more. With 34 points already earned for the design phase of the building, when the new crime lab’s construction phase is evaluated, project leaders aspire to a total score of 56, earning them Solid Platinum status.

Gsellmeier, a veteran of four other LEED-certified projects, agreed to provide Construction Equipment Guide with a firsthand look at the green and highly specialized building. The structure, new from the ground up, is devoted exclusively to capturing, interpreting and documenting the physical evidence of a crime. Technicians here are frequently asked to testify about their findings in a court of law.

The existing crime lab, which serves surrounding counties, was on the fifth floor of a 1960s building. The work had seriously outgrown the facility. About five years ago Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, formed a task force specifically to deal with the county’s crime lab, Gsellmeier said. The county’s official green building policy, which was adopted by the County Legislature in August 2007, formed the backbone of any new design. Gsellmeier, who was a member of that original task force, said, “We are very pleased with the way the project has been done.”

“Crime labs,” he added, “are nothing like what you see on TV. They are brightly illuminated and full of overhead hoods for technicians to do their work.”

Crime Fighting

From the Ground Up

Even a casual television viewer probably knows that the chain of custody of evidence — that is, from the capture of evidence, through the forensics lab and into the courtroom, is key. Any break in that chain could let a guilty person go free or condemn an innocent person to prison. Evidence arrives in the new building when the delivery vehicle gains admittance through a locked iron gate. After proper identification is provided, the vehicle carrying the evidence is allowed through the gate and into the building. The evidence collection area is just the beginning of the journey as the items wind their way through a variety of testing areas, depending on the nature of the evidence itself.

Evidence storage also is a big part of the building. The crime lab has a system to capture images digitally as well as storing hard evidence. Currently New York is among 16 states that has no laws requiring the preservation of DNA evidence. However, the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department, is funding the development of consistent guidelines for evidence retention across the country. The report is expected to be completed by 2012.

From the ground floor up, the first floor includes a central general evidence area, a space for weapons and other areas for viewing evidence with sophisticated instrumentation. It has a separate area for computer forensics and interestingly, a vehicle exam bay where any vehicle related to a crime can be hoisted up and thoroughly inspected. The vehicle exam area, a true improvement in process, is something the previous crime lab did not have. Mechanical equipment that run the building are also on the first and fourth floors.

On the second floor are the crime lab’s administrative offices, led by Janet Anderson-Seaquist, a relative new hire. Formerly the supervising forensic scientist of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Crime Laboratory in California, Seaquist has a master’s degree in forensic toxicology.

Also on the floor are records kept in a high-density storage room, as well as an area for controlled substance and trace analysis to inspect drug evidence and fire debris. Staff lockers at this location also facilitate having special work clothing as required.

Controlled substance analysis examines items including tablets, capsules, powders, plant material and liquids for the presence of controlled and non-controlled substances. First the weight of the materials is determined. Chemical screening tests eliminate certain drugs and point the chemist toward the drug that may be present in the submission. All drugs are different. For example, microcrystalline tests show unique and specific crystals when viewed through a compound microscope.

Another test is Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC), which confirms most types of drug evidence using an instrument called a Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer.

Criminalistics is the field of forensics dealing with the examination, comparison and identification of evidence. Trace evidence subdisciplines in the lab are:

Explosives, Fibers, Glass, Hairs, Impressions, Paint and Polymers, plus assorted particulate materials.

While the presence of an ignitable residue at a fire scene does not confirm arson, the absence of such a liquid does not eliminate the crime either. The job of the forensic chemist in the fire debris section is to determine if an ignitable liquid may or may not have been used to start a fire. The gas-chromatograph/mass selective detector, which produces a chromatogram, is just one instrument used for this purpose.

No surprise in today’s highly scientific criminal investigations is that the third floor is almost entirely devoted to forensic biology, DNA extraction, high-sensitivity DNA and DNA amplification. The forensic biology section of the lab is responsible for analyzing evidence that may be stained with biological fluids such as blood, saliva and semen. The lab has two sections: Serology and DNA. DNA is the genetic material that defines who we are. With the exception of identical twins, every person’s DNA is unique. Serology is the science concerned with the preparation, use and properties of serums.

It’s on the fourth floor where a shooting range has been installed to determine the role that firearms and toolmarks may have played as part of a criminal act. Unlike a firing range, where hitting a target is the object, the purpose of this space is to determine the toolmarks that are evident on every spent projectile. Reinhard describes the rubber-walled facility as a “bunker” with special sound-deafening considerations. He said the design was influenced by Willis Lawrie, of McLaren Wilson Lawrie, an out-of-state company that specializes in this line of work. Reinhard said, “We have excellent local architectural and engineering firms, but we don’t have the level of expertise in this specialized area of forensics laboratory design. We needed somebody with those qualifications to be part of the team.”

“Sound attenuation is a big deal here because the range is inside a building. Plus, they are often dealing with lead projectiles so it also has to be specially ventilated and filtered to protect the environment,” he said.

The energy of the projectile is decreased during firing. At the very end the bullet drops into a tin can. In addition to examining discharged ammunition components including bullets and cartridge cases, inspectors examine firearms, including silencers and homemade firearms, and also analyze clothing from gunshot victims. They also conduct shooting incident reconstructions to aid investigators.

The roof with its high “solar reflectance index,” which Gsellmeier described as a modified built-up roof with a white membrane provides the benefit of a reduced heat island effect. In addition the roof will contain photovoltaic panels, which capture energy to generate electricity. The roof is designed to capture rainwater — which normally would end up flowing needlessly to a sewage treatment center — for re-use, following minimum filtration and UV treatment. That harvested water is used in urinals, toilets and for janitorial purposes.

While the new building rose from what was once a parking lot, many security and design standards had to be met. Just a few of them included: vehicle setback, bullet resistance, air intakes, ventilation, eye wash stations, protection of evidence, firing range, vibration design and daylight and artificial light.

New Materials Deliver

Improved Performance

The new lab is an intriguing combination of things that are traditional — such as linen wall covering — to other features including pervious concrete in the parking lot, Garland percent reflectance stress plus SPF FR Mineral roofing (called a white roof in some articles about the project), and open-cell spray polyurethane foam insulation.

Efficiency drives performance here. Water efficiency alone, with rainwater harvesting, and low-flow fixtures, allowed water use to be reduced by 40 percent. As for energy and atmosphere, the optimized energy performance of the building is estimated to result in reduced energy consumption by 46 percent over a conventionally designed code-compliant building.

The lab has additional energy saving measures in place with high-efficiency chillers, boilers, pumping systems and motors, exhaust air energy recovery, ventilation tied to occupancy, a highly insulated building envelope, high-performance glazing, high-efficiency lighting controls, reduced power densities and automatic day lighting controls.

Emission reductions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and carbon dioxide also were significantly measurable. Renewable and recyclable materials were put to good use. Through waste management of construction materials, there was a 95 percent diversion from landfills. Recycled materials were used, FSC certified wood is in place, and many regional materials (20 percent within 500 miles) were sourced. Even the red-colored tiles in the bathroom are made from recycled beer bottles.

Another innovative design feature for Gsellmeier was ensuring they had an airtight building during the construction phase. He explained, “There is a company that comes in and works with you during both design and construction, and they perform what is referred to as building envelope commissioning.

“The building has to meet certain performance thresholds, so it gets tested. They pressurized the building and then measured the drop from the interior to the exterior. If it doesn’t test, they have to fix it,” he said. They did, in fact, have to fix a small leak in the air barrier on the fourth floor. Due in part to the airtight testing, the estimated energy savings are $81,000 a year.

Dust control through the construction phase was of vital concern because contamination of any kind is detrimental to the indoor air quality. “The only time we uncovered the ductwork,” said Gsellmeier, “was very briefly when we were adding another piece of ductwork.”

“When we were finished we wanted to be able to hand over a clean building,” he added. He said low-emitting materials in things like carpets, adhesives and paints were used throughout.

From the Outside

One of the most striking things about the new crime lab, from the street, is its open portico on all four stories that allows a lot of natural light to flow inside. On the inside those areas are often employee breakrooms that double as meeting and conference rooms. Day lighting is used in 25 percent of the building to reduce artificial light when natural light is available.

Gsellmeier credited architect Bud DeWolff, of DeWolff Partnership, in partnership with lead architect LaBella Associates, with being responsible for designing the building’s pleasing exterior. As a prominent government building on a busy street corner, the new edifice stands out.

Light pollution also is minimized outdoors and inside as well. By designing an energy efficient system, light does not stray beyond the perimeter of the site. Even more good news in this snowbound and slushy city is pervious concrete, which Gsellmeier called “somewhat cutting edge.”

Pervious concrete allows water to percolate down into the groundwater table, rather than running wastefully into the sewage treatment plant and Lake Ontario. He said the contractors found the new concrete, which “goes down a little differently,” easier to work with. Basically there is more air in the mixture. In areas where heavy trucks were anticipated, traditional paving materials were used.

Just a few of the new services now available are the vehicle bay to inspect vehicles used in crimes, the latent print area (latent prints were shipped to Albany for processing previously), the improved firing range, and the use of “interactive smart boards,” a combination of screen and computer on which technicians can evaluate crime scenes using digital images projected onto them.

The evolution of the new crime lab from a formerly overcrowded space to a new green building dedicated to fighting crime makes this an exciting time for Monroe County and the eight-county area that surrounds it. The bar has been raised, new capabilities are now in place and workers will benefit from a higher comfort level.

The chain of custody of evidence has never been so complete, green, or good looking. CEG

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