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NFSTC deploys forensic laboratories to assist Montana DOJ


A scientist at the Montana Department of Justice works in the deployable forensic laboratory while renovations are completed in their permanent offices.

The National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) recently delivered a deployable forensic laboratory to the Montana Department of Justice in Missoula.  The unit will provide temporary housing for its public crime laboratory sections as each area of its laboratory undergoes renovations. The deployable laboratory will be on site through June 2011.

Due to the nature of crime laboratory work, any loss of operational time can create a significant backlog of casework affecting court schedules, local law enforcement processes and public safety. Deployable forensic laboratories are an innovative and efficient way to provide expansion in emergency or combat situations, or temporary replacement of capabilities after a natural disaster or other crisis. The mobile labs provide expandable facilities free of charge to the agency in need, support that comes through a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) previously funded the development, integration, testing and delivery of the mobile forensic laboratories, which are operated and maintained by NFSTC.  The NIJ provides the funding required to maintain operations. 

“When our laboratory was faced with a major HVAC renovation, we contacted the NFSTC staff, who helped us plan and implement the use of a NFSTC mobile laboratory on loan,” said Dave McAlpin, Montana State Crime Laboratory director.  “Having that space available for our forensic scientists to continue their work in a controlled setting has allowed us to continue casework going and maintain quality standards while sections are displaced by the construction.” 

Montana’s laboratory came up with a creative solution to the major project and is renovating one section at a time, displacing up to three analysts and their equipment at any one time. The mobile unit is small enough to be conveniently parked adjacent to the building, but big enough to hold all the necessary equipment during each rotation. This method has maintained maximum continuation of services and to date the firearms and DNA/serology sections have been completed.                               

“The deployable lab was basically a blank canvas which allowed us to configure it as we desired,” said Travis Spinder, firearms section supervisor.  “We were able to continue working without interruption during our section’s relocation.”

Each deployable unit measures 8’ x 20’ x 8.5’ and is seated on a standard transport trailer for rapid deployment. Once folded out, a maximum of 400 square feet of usable laboratory space is available for customization and immediate use. Multiple units can be connected to expand space or isolate different forensic services such as DNA or trace evidence analysis.

“Helping public crime laboratory teams continue to provide quality services to their communities is a top priority,” said Dave Sylvester, project administration director for NFSTC. “Keeping operations up and running smoothly takes coordination and we are happy to be able to supply technology that supports local services.” 

The organization’s mobile laboratories have been deployed across the country including two that recently returned from a stint in Marquette, MI, for the Michigan State Police, one in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to assist after major flooding in 2008, and two currently onsite in Arizona.