A two-legged stool does not stand, and a stool with one leg that is twice as long as the others will be unstable. Best, of course, is a stool where all three legs are equal. If we use the idea of a stool as a model of what is needed to support DNA analysis then there are three legs that should be equal—staff, equipment, and space.

DNA analysis has rapidly become a key element in laboratory processes. DNA is currently one of the only areas of forensic science that has not come under scrutiny in the latest report by the National Academy of Science. However, vulnerability always exists, even to a very highly regarded process such as DNA analysis. That weakness in DNA can be mitigated by finding the right relationship and ultimately the balance between number of employees, equipment supporting the employees, and the space in which the equipment and employees reside.

For the purpose of this article, let’s say that we would like to add 30 new staff to a forensic laboratory in order to decrease case turnaround time and consequently to decrease case backlog. Adding 30 new positions to the laboratory will allow cases to be worked as they are submitted and will provide for enough staff to facilitate a decrease in the backlog. The additional staff will also decrease the case turnaround time to the laboratory’s goal of 45 days.

three legged stool

Issue #1 – Staff
Let’s presume that there is funding in place to hire 30 additional employees. With the hiring of this additional staff, is there adequate space in the facility to accommodate these extra positions? The question of available space is not only within the laboratory, but within office areas as well. Certainly there are ways in which additional employees can be accommodated such as instituting shift work for laboratory functions and by utilizing desk sharing (or hoteling) for the office areas. However, shift work for a 24 hour period may not be feasible for forensic laboratory staff. Additionally there is a limit to the number of employees who can efficiently utilize space (laboratory and office) before it negatively impacts either the quantity or quality of case processing. Furthermore, how does this affect the other two variables—equipment and space? If 30 additional employees are hired, will there be enough equipment for the new employees to utilize in the processing of cases and will the laboratory actually realize an increase in the number of cases worked?

Issue #2 – Equipment
Equipment purchase may be achievable for a forensic laboratory through the use of grants or other revenue sources. Similar to adding analysts, adding additional equipment may also aid the laboratory in the realization of more rapid case processing. The addition of robotics to the laboratory may also increase the throughput for the task of extraction, but is still hampered by other phases of the analysis (serology and amplification) where high quantity throughput is not yet possible. The addition of equipment is dependent on the other two legs of our DNA stool—staff is needed to utilize additional equipment, and more space (and infrastructure) is required to support this equipment. Without the other two, the addition of equipment does not alone solve the issue of case processing and backlog.

Issue #3 – Space
DNA analysis is the most rapid growth area within most forensic facilities. When funding becomes available for capital improvement such as adding additional space and infrastructure to a laboratory or converting existing “soft” space to laboratory space, forensic organizations often steer towards utilizing that additional space for DNA.With the additional demands on DNA, case load and backlogs are meeting with additional time pressures, so the thought of increasing space for DNA is reasonable. However, creating more space without the proper forethought for additional equipment and staff leads us to the unequal distribution of function and does not move the lab any closer to their goals.

Having discussed the tripartite dependence of staff, equipment, and space, let’s revisit the example of the forensic laboratory above. If 30 staff members are needed to hit the target turnaround time and decrease case backload, what other resources will be needed to support this goal? It is equally important to review the process of the DNA facility to understand how much and what type of additional space is necessary as well as how much additional equipment is necessary for staff members to perform their analyses correctly and in the most efficient manner possible. Our forensic laboratory example may find that hiring just 20 more employees in lieu of 30, moving to two shifts to efficiently use existing space and utilizing the remainder of funds for the purchase of equipment may be a better solution to their specific issues and needs.

We hope this article helps you, the reader, to understand the implications of the co-dependence of the three legs—staff, equipment, and space—that support the ultimate goal of processing cases in an expedient manner while bringing down the overall backlog that most facilities seem to face. If any one of these three legs is absent, the stool will not stand. However, perhaps even more important, if any one of the three legs is out of balance, the stool is very precarious. Each leg needs its own attention in equal amounts to provide balance to the process.

Ken Mohr is a Principal and Sr. Forensic Laboratory Planner with Crime Lab Design, which provides full architectural and engineering services for forensic and medical examiner facilities.

Susan Halla is a Project Leader with Crime Lab Design.