Hazards and a Crime Scene

Mike Byrd
Miami-Dade Police Department
Crime Scene Investigations

Another Routine Day At The Office

Cross training in todays specialized working society can be extremely significant. No where in the forensic field is that more evident than in crime scene investigations. The investigator or technician can find himself/herself in many unique situations during an investigation. Unit supervisors should be aggressively searching for unique training opportunities for their investigative specialists. This will assure that they have an assortment of knowledge and tools to proficiently handle their tasks.

An area that deserves more adequate attention through basic skills training workshops and publications is the hazards and safety issues responding to a crime scene. Personal safety as well as occupational safety are always a priority in limiting injuries and illnesses to exposures. This applies in the field as well as in the lab. This article is written from experiences to share and hopefully assist those working in the field.

The mention of the word hazard is associated with a HAZMAT RESPONSE which is usually considered A Fire Department or Emergency Management response.

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In responding to a crime scene, the investigator or technician may find the possibilities of being exposed to any of three (3) different types of hazards or safety conditions. Bio-hazards, Chemical hazards, or Physical hazards. A hazard is considered the lack of safety or degree of risk to an exposure situation. Safety is the first duty to consider in any occupation or task.

After working many types of disasters, high profile cases and hazardous crime scenes, experience has shown that something new can be learned from each experience. Each experience has generated unique and different challenges. Those challenges require immediate attention and revisions to the plan of operations being conducted. The one constant in these types of challenges is change. Proper training and experience will assure safe and expeditious results..

One such experience in mid-summer of 1995 involved a hazardous material response. A hazardous material is considered any substance capable of posing an unreasonable safety risk. Our investigation involved the examination and processing of a death scene in a large agricultural field that had recently been sprayed with agricultural chemicals.

Agricultural chemicals are defined as chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilizers used in agriculture to control pests and disease or control and promote growth.

As with any investigation, the first step is to evaluate the site and the situation (scene recognition) in order to initiate a plan of operation. What is being taught in critical incident management is a three (3) tier perimeter for isolating and securing the scene.

You have an outer-perimeter that is established as a much larger area than the actual site itself. This is an area that is established for the safe being of onlookers, media, and any other nonessential personnel. An inner-perimeter is established for a command post or work area. And the (core, hot spot, or scene) site itself.

The scene recognition includes the plan of action, manpower, proper equipment, communications, and in this cases a decontamination area.

Our first decision was to choose the manpower that we would need. We decided that we would need a four (4) person team. We had a representative from hazmat, who would actually lead our team, due to his experience and knowledge. We had a representative of the homicide division who was actually handling the investigation. A representative from the medical examiners office responsible for the body, and myself from the crime scene investigation aspect for documenting and any collection needed.

Our next step was to establish and prepare our decontamination area away from our work area. A Decontamination Area is an established area designated for the removal of dangerous goods from personnel. A three (3) series rinse station was established for this purpose. We were fortunate to have a fire hydrant near a base of operations. It became our "DECON AREA".

Our next task involved the protective equipment that we would need to enter the intense area of the scene.

Levels of protective clothing

For this type of response there are basically four (4) threat levels of protective clothing. They range from the lowest level consisting of a coverall type garment with no respirator used for nuisance contaminations, to the highest level fully encapsuleted suite with a self-contained breathing apparatus. the later garment will give protection needed for skin, respiratory, and eye.

There are a variety of levels and types of threats. The threat level protective garments described above are for hazardous materials and dangerous goods. This may not be the same as the protective clothing recommended for use in a lab with far less hazardous materials or exposures, at an underwater recovery with of a different type of threat, or at a hazardous fire or explosive scene with an even greater level and types of hazardous exposure. Any of the companies that carry and sale the protective equipment, OSHA, local Hazmat organizations, even risk management will assist in information concerning the proper protective clothing and needs for these type responses.

Since we would be working where there were possibilities of large amounts of a high level of toxicity of chemicals, we would need to work in the highest level (level A) of protective clothing. This is not the type of equipment that you just put on and stroll off to work in. It is recommended that safe use of this type of protective clothing and equipment require specific skills developed through training and experience. Know what resources you have available. Make Your equipment work for you!!!

We spent several hours learning each piece of equipment and how it properly worked. This was done until each of us felt comfortable with the equipment and its function.

Every part of the operation was detailed. After the full suite is in place there is an inability to hear or be heard. We designated hand signals to allow for communications to one another. The self contained breathing tank weighs approximately 50 to 60 pounds. The full tank will last approximately 45 minutes to an hour. We practiced breathing techniques to allow maximum tank time.

We were ready to suite up and begin our trek. Adjusting to the suite can take time. Imagine strapping a 50t pound tank to your back and then stepping into light weight body armor with a viewing port. If you look down, your visibility starts from several feet away. Next you start to feel the intense heat from inside the suite. It doesn't help when the temperatures outside are in the high 90's.

There were several hundred yards of plowed open land before we hit the planted field. We were driven to a designated area just outside the field. The field had soft dirt that went ankle deep with each step. Whatever crop was being grown was at a height just above our heads. Once we entered the field we had to keep close together and try to keep our bearings. We knew that the location of our scene was just about the center of this field.

I carefully documented our progress as we moved through different stages of the operation. For whatever reason I had gone by our office and gotten a second camera before responding to the scene. This turned out to be a blessing. With this fully contained suite in place there would have been no way to have changed film or lenses during the operation.

Another challenge was taking the photographs. With the full suite and respirator in place the camera would be so far from the operator that the viewing port of the camera is not accessible. Reverting back to the cup and saucer method of firearms training assisted in placing the camera in the right direction and angles for taking the pictures.

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The suites are not flexible or easy to work in. Every movement has to be slow and deliberate. Bending and stooping is almost impossible.

We were able to document the scene from every position and angle. We then recovered the victim placing the body in a zippered pouch and carried it from the field. Special precautions were taken to prevent the pouch from becoming contaminated. We went back to our designated area for the pouch to be loaded for transport. We then set out to walk the long distance across the field to our decontamination area. It seemed like miles.

During our initial instructions on the equipment we were informed that the respirator tank would signal when it was down to its last five (5) minutes of air supply. The signal turned out to be an alarm. A VERY LOUD ALARM, INSIDE THE CONTAINED SUITE. When the alarm went off echoing through the suit it scared the living daylights out of me. We were about 50 yards from the decon area when the alarm rang. Our leader quickly recognized what was happening and did his best to calm my fears. He signaled ahead to let our decontamination team know that we had a slight inconvenience. As the tank runs out of air, the suite with each breath contracts and expands like an accordion.

As we approached our decon area I was rushed through a series of rinses and immediately taken out of the suite. This is an experience that I will not forget. The endurance and training needed for an exercise like this can really be appreciated by someone who experiences it for the first time. It also gives a whole new prospective on safety and awareness of things that can be taken for granted.

In an age of considerable information and instant knowledge, it is surprising to consider the lack of communications and information sharing in this area....

About the Author

Mike Byrd (1955-2005) joined the Miami-Dade County Police Department in 1983 and started with the Crime Scene Investigations Bureau in 1987. He took an exceptionally active part in the science of forensic crime scene investigations, including development of new techniques, publishing methodology of crime scene procedures, and teaching. Mike developed new techniques for gathering and cataloging crime scene evidence including the lifting of fingerprints, vehicle tire impressions, and footwear impressions.

Mike's methods and analysis withstood the scrutiny of the criminal justice process. He published more than thirty crime scene articles on crime scene evidence collection and for the International Association for Identification and was awarded The Good of the Association Award in 2002 for his innovative identification methodology and techniques. He taught crime scene investigation procedures and techniques at police departments around the country and took great pride at instructing smaller Florida police departments in the latest techniques in evidence gathering.

Mike performed the tough detailed oriented forensic work at many major crime scenes and disasters over two-decades. He gathered, processed, and identified the DNA evidence used to convict the Tamiami Strangler for a string of heinous murders in 1994. His thoughtful gathering of evidence at the Valujet crash allowed families to reach closure for the deaths of loved ones.

Mike Byrd died after a more than two year battle with multiple myeloma cancer. Annually, the Police Officer Assistance Trust awards the Mike Byrd Crime Scene Investigation Scholarship in his honor.

Articles by Mike Byrd

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