A needs assessment provides a data-driven understanding of factors that must be considered to determine, at the beginning, the appropriate and cost effective direction for your new forensic facility. A perfect way to assess your current situation, a needs assessment develops consensus with the owners, users, and staff. It is the first step to programming, planning, designing, and constructing your project. It answers the big picture questions:

  • Why is the forensic lab facility needed?
  • What spaces should be included in the facility?
  • How big should the facility be?
  • How much will it cost?

This article is the first of a two part series. The objective is not only to thoroughly convey the true advantage of a needs assessment, but prepare you for the question “Why do you need a new facility?” Parts of the text within the article are intended to be used as the ground work for your organization’s justification letter to your superiors. The purpose of the letter is to depict your need for a new facility and open the door for a needs assessment.

A needs assessment is a collaborative process involving representatives from the agency, forensic laboratory specialists, and city, county, and/or state peers. In a 12 to 24 week duration, the process starts by gathering and reviewing existing data. For example:

  • Organizational structure identifying staff and position
  • Growth projections, 10 to 20 to even 30 years out
  • Mission, scope, and objectives for the project
  • Functions and operations of current departments and sections
  • Needs of the lab’s client base
  • Current backlog
  • Quantity and type of long-term evidence storage
  • Proposed site(s) for the new facility or areas for renovation
  • Any ASCLD/LAB or N.A.M.E. accreditation; and ISO 17025 issues

The next step involves conducting team meetings, tours, and interviews. After that effort is complete, all of the data is analyzed and details are mapped out. This entails:

  • Space program by section
  • Net square feet, grossing factor, and gross square feet
  • Number of occupants per space
  • Critical paths and scientific workflows
  • Space adjacencies and critical factors
  • Conceptual building diagram and construction cost model

From the comprehensive process used to analyze data, a draft document is developed. After the draft document is thoroughly reviewed and revised, the needs assessment is finalized and a detailed report is presented. A needs assessment, combined with a design program, documents the requirements for the new facility and guides the design process.

The case you develop is a statement of where you are, where you need to be, and most importantly, “why.” Use the following steps as an outline:

  • Start by identifying the mission and objectives of your current operation with an emphasis on what is needed and why.
  • Identify your new missions and objectives of your future operations.
  • Tell Your Story
  • Understand current staff and future growth

In your justification letter or during conversations with your superiors, use every opportunity to highlight the condition of your existing space. Begin this by telling the story of your current facility. While you’re developing your agency’s story keep in mind your main goal of answering the question “Why do you need a new facility?”

Harold Messler, Manager-Criminalistics of the St. Louis Police Forensic Laboratory, was approached by his superiors to define why their agency needed a new facility. He responded by concentrating on the existing space first. Messler said, “ASCLD/LAB requirements dictate certain policies that must be met to insure the integrity of our work. Adequate space, segregation of activities, and sufficient infrastructure are addressed within these policies. We risk losing our ASCLD/LAB accreditation by not having a facility that would stand up to inspection.”

Draw attention to staff changes within your agency. Collect historical data to benchmark where you have been, indicate where you are today, and where your agency plans to be in the future. Within most forensic laboratories today, the historic view will not reflect the actual need for today or tomorrow. The only reason to address it is to show how little things have changed over several years despite the desperate need.

Keep in mind you are not just looking at staffing numbers, but the positions and type of staff. The typical CSI or Crim-inalist is no longer a retired police officer or officer hurt in the line of duty looking for that cushy desk job. Now it is a four to six year college graduate with a degree in chemistry, biology, or forensics. What will keep the educated, trained, and experienced staff around for another ten years? In projecting for the future, it is important to talk about recruitment and retention.

As you gather your thoughts and prepare your justification letter for a new facility, remember you are answering the question “Why?” This first step opens the door and lays the foundation for a needs assessment. When a needs assessment is preformed by experienced forensic laboratory design professionals, the comprehensive tool helps you move to step two: building support and obtaining financial resources.


The following text is intended to serve as an example for your agency as you develop your case for a new forensic facility.

Current Departments and Technology: The Forensic Laboratory is currently composed of a group of eight specialized laboratory units. Each unit conducts highly specialized analyses of evidence submitted by law enforcement officials and investigators. Collectively, their purpose is to assist with the collection of evidence at crime scenes, conduct specific scientific examination, and analysis of evidence to determine if there are sufficient scientific facts to support accusations of wrongdoing and provide expert courtroom testimony when needed. The laboratory is not suitable for the additional new responsibilities involving terrorism related incidents and responding to threats from Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The seven current laboratory units are: Trace Analysis, Firearms and Toolmarks, Controlled Substance, Latent Print Processing and Comparison, Arson Analysis, Crime Scene Investigation, and Photography. This should be followed with a brief description of each unit.

New Departments and Technology: In addition to these Forensic Laboratory Units explained above, two more are required to further the success of the agency and bring a higher level of piece of mind to the surrounding community.

Forensic Biology and DNA Unit
The scientists in this unit perform highly sensitive forensic identification to assist in violent and sexual crime investigations. The DNA Unit will often forward biological residues recovered and examined by the Forensic Biology Unit. The results of our DNA tests will either exonerate or strongly implicate suspects through the comparison of DNA profiles from crime scene evidence. Such evidence includes, but is not limited to: blood, seminal fluid, and hair roots. There are two primary sources of known DNA profiles used in comparison with evidentiary stains. The first comes directly from suspects and victims involved with a particular case and the second from the CODIS database. The DNA Unit would also identify human remains in the aftermath of terrorism related incidents and trace amounts of DNA.
The Combined DNA Identification System (CODIS) Unit is responsible for implementation of the DNA Databank program in compliance with new legislation. This Unit schedules and performs the collection of blood samples from convicted offenders, coordinates testing, uploading results of DNA profiles to both the State and National DNA Index Systems (SDIS and NDIS), and facilitates automated searches of unsolved or cold cases in CODIS. This Unit is also poised to receive federal grant funding in an effort to reduce our case backlog and cold case files.

In 1995 the Agency moved its forensic laboratory out of an aging building and into a renovated elementary school (office building, jail, which ever). This move was necessary for numerous reasons, but was intended as the first step to modernize the forensics laboratory. Although this facility was a clear step above the old laboratory, it no longer meets today's space and capacity requirements for forensic, bioscience (such as DNA), or certain basic environmental needs of a modern forensic laboratory.

The laboratory has reached the limits of the current facility’s infrastructure services. Electrical service has reached maximum capacity as well as the limitations to the amount of stable electrical power coming in from the street. Although the HVAC system was renovated in 1995 to accommodate our move into the facility, the system is not able to keep temperature and relative humidity requirements at a constant level during extreme high and low weather. We are losing evidence and evidentiary analysis during these extreme weather conditions.

The forensic laboratory design team will focus on laboratory industry standards for floor plate organization, net square feet to gross square feet ratios, and material selection maintaining clean ability and durability over time. They will adhere to and apply the standards for forensic laboratory design that are recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, and National Institute of Justice’s research report entitled "Forensic Laboratories: Handbook for Facility Planning, Design, Construction, and Moving.” The new (or renovated) laboratory will conform to all standards that are required for accreditation by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD)/Laboratory Accreditation Board and health and safety considerations for a modern forensics laboratory.

The number of personnel assigned to the Forensic Laboratory has more than doubled since its opening in 1995. Although a second shift has been added, administrative, bench, and evidence storage space is at a premium. Few, if any, chemists have a workstation assigned exclusively to one person; bench space is at full capacity; and evidence storage for long-term holding is nearing its space limits. The facility is overcrowded and is becoming unsafe. Hallways are filled with refrigerators and freezers. Filing cabinets block the exit ways used in case of a fire.

The typical case profile has changed the need for staff. The DNA Testing Unit is a perfect example. In 1999, the forensic DNA Testing Unit was opened in our existing facility but the capacity only meets about 25% of the community’s current needs. This would still be true if the DNA Unit was fully staffed. Case demands by prosecutors and investigators are expected to double in the next 5-10 years. This projection is based on the fact that juries, prosecutors, and investigators have come to expect DNA testing in virtually all cases where biological residues are transferred. With the benefits of advanced sensitive DNA tests and CODIS, testing unsolved cases without identified suspects often leads to resolution.

The Forensic Laboratory serves 2,000 sworn members of the local police force. The law enforcement agency serves a population of approximately 2,250,000 people.

With these demographics one can start to extrapolate potential staffing: one sworn officer for every 1,000 people; 2,250,000 people divided by 1,000 equals 2,250 sworn officers. ASCLD suggests one forensic examiner/analyst can serve 40 to 60 sworn officers. Within our agency, this recommends that the total number of forensic examiner/analyst staff for the state would range between 38 and 57. Additional staffing for investigators, evidence control, quality assurance, and administration is above and beyond this staffing of forensic examiners/analysts.

Our forensic laboratory currently has 22 civilians, with five additional hires starting in FY06. Of those, 18 are examiners/analysts. These numbers do not include the sworn officers that perform crime scene and latent print work. This presents 12 additional examiners/analysts, totaling 30 crim-inalist examiners. We, like most labs, are phasing out the sworn staff and replacing or converting them to civilian staff. This is not a simple task because it involves changing their attitude and outlook of forensic science and the agency they work for.

Ken Mohr is a Principal and Sr. Forensic Laboratory Planner with Crime Lab Design, which provides full A/E services for forensic and medical examiner facilities. His 19 years of experience with advanced laboratories includes 4 million square feet of forensic facilities.