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What Happens Next?

Sun, 08/15/2010 - 5:59pm
Dick Warrington

Crime scene cleanup is often left to the victim's family: professional services are available.Crime scene officers are often called to scenes of serious trauma or death. Their job is to systematically document and process every aspect of the scene. This includes photographing and diagramming the scene, writing up detailed reports, and processing and collecting evidence. After completing these tasks, most officers don’t give the scene another thought. But what happens next? Someone has to deal with the blood and any other biohazards left at the scene. Understanding what happens after CSOs leave the scene can help you do your job better and also help those who need it most: the victims and the people left behind.

In recent years, a number of crime scene clean up companies have sprung up. While some companies simply offer cleaning and removal, others offer a complete range of services including property restoration, assistance with insurance claims, and referrals to counselors and other professionals. To help provide a clearer understanding of crime scene clean up and its importance to law enforcement, I spoke with experts from Biotrauma, Inc., a firm out of Georgia that also serves Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and parts of Kentucky and Mississippi. Ryan Sawyer, President and Director of Marketing and Sales for Biotrauma, began the business after serving in Iraq with Mortuary Affairs. David Walker, Crew Supervisor for Biotrauma, previously worked for Clorox. Biotrauma offers a full range of services to their clients and specializes in thorough, professional service completed in a discreet, respectful manner.

According to Sawyer, 80% of victims or their families clean up after a homicide, suicide, trauma, or situations involving decomposing bodies and other biological hazards because they don’t know that professional services are available. Having victims or their families or employees (in the case of a corporate incident) perform this work is usually less than ideal. First, these situations can involve many physical hazards. Of primary concern are bloodborne and air-borne pathogens such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis A-E, etc. Sharp objects such as tack strips, nails, and hypodermic needles can also pose a risk.

Without the proper training, individuals attempting a clean up could contract a serious illness or injury. Professionals such as those with Biotrauma, on the other hand, have extensive training in handling and removing these hazards and understand the state and federal regulations governing biohazards and their clean up and removal. As Walker explains, when the Biotrauma crew arrives on the scene, they begin by taking a detailed history so they are aware of any specific illnesses or concerns. But in all cases, they approach the scene with the attitude of “protect everyone from everything.” They also come prepared with personal protective equipment (ppe) that includes regulated gowns, face masks and shields, and disposable double gloves and double boots taped to the body for further protection. In addition, they use EPA regulated, hospital grade disinfectants and remediate to the lowest point of saturation. When they complete their work, they can provide a certificate of treatment, which offers assurance to the current and future occupants of the site that it has been restored to a safe standard.

Dealing with the aftermath of a death or other traumatic incident can also present psychological risks. Critical Incident Stress Syndrome (CISS) is the adverse psychological and/or physiological reaction to a stressful incident. CISS can be triggered by a catastrophic event such as an accident, death of a relative, or pet. Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder (STSD) is related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and affects those closely associated with people who have experienced a traumatic event, such as family, friends, first-responders, psychologists, and even remediation technicians. CISS and STSD are serious problems; left untreated, they may lead to suicide.

Sawyer notes that, given the serious nature of the risks, the sooner those involved can get help from professionals, the better. Since law enforcement officers are on the scene, it makes sense for them to educate the public about the services available to them. However, this often does not happen. Because this industry is fairly new, some officers are unaware of the resources available in their area. In other cases, officers are reluctant to inform people about these services because of what Sawyer refers to as “red tape”—departmental policies prohibiting officers from referring victims or others to a specific business or service. Sawyer notes that other departments have recognized that such policies were getting in the way of helping the community and found ways around this problem—in some instances by offering a list of companies to avoid the appearance of advocating for one particular firm.

Establishing connections with professional crime scene clean up companies can result in other benefits for law enforcement and crime scene officers. As Sawyer explains, their standard operating procedure is to coordinate their work with the responsible authorities, beginning with making sure that the scene has been released before beginning any work. This is a critical step, since the scene is altered forever once clean up begins; officers cannot go back after that point to take more photos or look for more evidence. Professionals also ask if the officers want them to look for rounds, shell casings, or other types of evidence. Yet they are also aware of their limits; they document their work with reports and photographs, but they do not attempt to collect any evidence they find. Instead, they notify authorities and shut down their work until they arrive to process and/or collect it.

As Sawyer and Walker point out, professionals in crime scene clean up can contribute to the work of law enforcement and crime scene officers because they have a unique perspective on a scene—simply by the nature of their work, they have access to different levels of the scene. Law enforcement deals with the crime scene as it is; crime scene clean up professionals move things, pull things up and apart. In the process, they sometimes expose valuable evidence. By working with these professionals, officers can gain new insights into crime scenes, increase their understanding of potential dangers at scenes, and alert the public to a valuable service.

Dick Warrington is in research and development and a crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company. Dick can be reached at dwarrington@peaveycorp.com.

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