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Utah’s Unified State Laboratories houses the state’s agriculture and food lab, medical examiner and crime lab. (Photo: © Liam Frederick. SmithGroupJJR, Design Architect and Laboratory Planner, and VCBO Architecture, Architect of Record.)

Earlier this year, the Utah legislature passed a law requiring the testing of all new rape kits in the state. Around the same time, something was in the works—a new building that would house the laboratories of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, the state medical examiner under the Department of Health, and the state crime lab under the Department of Public Safety. 

Now, the challenge of tackling the rape kit backlog and the advantage of a new facility equipped with advanced technology have come together at the Unified State Laboratories, where forensic scientists are using robotics and automation to speed up analysis, and innovating to increase turnaround time amidst an urgent and demanding workload.

The backlog

The rape kit backlog in Utah consists of two groups—old kits and new kits, explains Utah state crime lab director Jay Henry. The first group—kits stored at police agencies that have never been submitted to the lab, some for many years—has been tackled mostly through outsourcing to private vendor labs, reducing an initial estimate of 2,760 old untested kits by about half since 2014. 

But the other group—the new, incoming kits that must be submitted for testing within 30 days of collection, in accordance with the new law—will be tackled directly by the state lab as they’re coming in the door, which is no small feat and has greatly increased the lab’s demand.

“We did maybe a couple hundred kits in 2009, and we’re predicting that we’ll do about 1,300 this year. So you can see that that’s a huge increase for us,” the lab director said. 

Henry knew he would need more staff and better technology to help with the heightened workload, but neither could become a reality without a crucial first step.

“There’s no way we can bring in robotics and people and not have a place for them to work,” he said.

Through the cooperation of three different agencies—the Department of Agriculture and Food, the Department of Health and the Department of Public Safety—all seeking a way to address their needs and challenges, the Unified State Laboratories were conceived and constructed in two phases—Module 1, which opened in 2010, and Module 2, which opened June 1, 2017. According to Henry, the new laboratories were over a decade in the making. 

“The old facilities were just office buildings converted into a lab, so they weren’t purpose-built. There were naturally challenges with that—they weren’t safe, they weren’t efficient, they didn’t have the right layout for the work that we were doing. You just kind of made do with what you had,” Henry explained.

The new 97,000 sq. ft. Module 2 facility in Taylorsville, Utah, however, is purpose-built, with a wide range of safety and productivity features that come just in time to meet an increased demand for the lab’s forensic services.

Unified State Laboratories opened in June 2017 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Source: Utah.gov)

Innovating with automation

A key component of the new crime lab facilities is robotic technology that is able to automate parts of the analysis process and therefore cut turnaround time. Putting this new technology to use would become key in tackling the rape kit influx that the crime lab has been experiencing. 
The robotics speed up testing by eliminating the need for time-consuming tasks that would usually be performed by hand. 

“I don’t think we could ask for enough people to accommodate (our workload), to manually process each one of those samples. When I say manually process I mean cutting the swabs, adding the chemical, shaking it up, removing the chemical—it’s a very work-intensive process,” Henry explained. 
The lab is now using two lines of automated technology—Qiagen and Hamilton—to shorten that process. 

“We’re using both lines, maximizing it,” Henry said. “All we’re going to do is cut the swab and put it in the tube, and let the robotic do everything for us.”

The automation not only makes for a faster testing process, but it also frees up the hands of laboratory staff who then have time to perform other important tasks. 

“That removes the analysts from the lab and puts them in the data analysis area where I need them to be, to look at the data that robotics and all the other instrumentation is generating for us,” Henry said. 

Implementing this new equipment isn’t as easy as unpacking it, turning it on and letting it go to work processing samples. With new tools and methods come new challenges, which require some learning and innovation along the way.

Though primarily a production lab, typically using already-established methods to process evidence and get the results that law enforcement needs to advance its investigations, Henry says the state crime lab has begun to seek its own ways to “maximize” and “optimize” the use of both Hamilton and Qiagen QIAcube machines for best results.

“It was such a dramatic change for us, to go from the small amount of case work we had to the huge increase that we’re experiencing right now, that we had to do something. And we couldn’t wait for another lab to generate it, make the best effort, come out and validate it, and make it all work out,” Henry explained. “We felt like this is a good way to go and we just decided to make the leap ourselves.”

Increased reliance on DNA testing for a wider variety of crimes—such as shootings and robberies where touch DNA can be taken from a gun or face mask—and a new direct-to-DNA approach for rape kit testing recently implemented at the lab have been additional factors in increasing the demand for testing. With more agencies across the country, including the approximate 140 law enforcement agencies served by the Utah lab, seeking more DNA evidence for investigations and prosecutions, Henry predicts automation will become more necessary, with its speed as well as its ability to take human error out of the equation.

“With the number of samples and number of requests that crime labs have gotten for DNA testing, you’re going to need some sort of automation, and I can’t see anything other than some sort of robotic line to help you out. I see it as a good thing, and as one more tool for the forensic scientist to use in the lab,” he said. “These robotic systems allow us to get the turnaround times to where we’d like to be. Personally, I’d like to see a 30-day turnaround time or less for DNA results.”

As for whether automation could pose a problem by replacing the role of human scientists, Henry says this is not the case.

“I need the scientists to look at the data and make sense of it. I need them there, I don’t need them doing manual things that machines can do for us better,” he said.

Enhanced bullet analysis, worker safety

A new forensic firing range and renewed use of the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, or NIBIN, at the new facility also promise enhanced shooting investigations, with the latter providing an additional layer of automation to speed up work at the lab. 

While NIBIN was removed from the previous facility due to lack of use, Henry says the reinstated system will be much more efficient than manual processes, and that working with law enforcement agencies to quicken the transfer of bullet evidence between entities will ensure use of the system is maximized, and focused on solving the newest and most pertinent shooting cases.

Beyond maximizing efficiency, Henry says the new facility provides an increased level of safety and comfort for the scientists who work in the laboratory. 

“Some of the safety enhancements for our personnel have been great. With the issues of some of the drugs that we’re seeing on the street now, specifically fentanyl—these substances are really dangerous just to touch. And if there’s a mistake made and somebody inhales something like that, it can be fatal,” he explained. 

A new safety feature not available at the old facility—overhead ventilation devices on articulating arms that pull fumes and other potentially dangerous substances into the ceiling—will better protect lab workers from such hazards.

Overall, Henry says he is very pleased with the new facility, and optimistic about his lab’s ability to serve its agencies and its community in the future.

“We felt like we’ve got a fantastic enhancement to the forensic service in Utah, for now and for many years to come,” he said. 

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