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Virginia's western forensics lab begins expansion

The project began this week, and will add greatly to one of the busiest facilities in the state.

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Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2014 8:48 pm

Construction began this week on a state facility in Roanoke County that will more than double the amount of space available to the region’s forensic scientists and medical examiners.

The $40 million project will add to and renovate the Virginia Department of Forensic Science’s Western Laboratory, as well as the Western District Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, housed in the same building.

The addition and remodeling of existing space will be a welcome relief to the roughly 76 people who work at the facility off Peters Creek Road, investigating crimes and deaths in cramped labs and facilities approaching two decades old.

“We’ve pretty much topped out this place,” said Kevin Patrick, director of the forensic science lab. “It’s not ideal working conditions.”

The building on Northside High School Road is one of the busiest in the state. Forensic scientists last year worked on nearly 14,700 cases, while medical examiner’s office officials performed more than 1,300 in-house autopsies or exams.

Officials said they’ve outgrown the current space, which was built in 1995.

Contractors on Monday started site work at the county’s old public safety center, adjacent to the facility. The building — once a Roanoke County school — was acquired by the state several years ago with the intention to use the space one day for just this purpose.

Three phases of construction call for demolition of that building to be finished by April, when contractors will begin construction of a new three-floor, 63,000-square-foot space. The new area will be attached to the current facility, which is roughly 53,000 square feet.

Once the new building is complete, contractors will remodel portions of the current facility, Patrick said. The entire project is scheduled to last roughly two years.

The new space will allow the lab and medical examiner’s office to purchase about $6 million in new equipment, too, something Patrick said the facility desperately needs.

“Right now we are limited to where we may have one or two pieces of a particular kind of equipment, and we have nine examiners waiting in line to use that,” Patrick said.

The expansion also will allow the facility to hire new staffers in the future. Though there are no current plans to create new positions, “right now we don’t even have room for them if we did want to hire new staff,” Patrick said.

The new space will double from five to 10 the number of autopsy tables the medical examiner’s office has and will expand the agency’s administrative space, said Tracie Cooper, district administrator at the office.

“We just don’t have a lot of space for our staff to work,” Cooper said.

Construction plans call for new training areas, something that had been effectively suspended locally when administrators were forced to turn the current training classrooms into office space.

The lab and the medical examiner’s office cover the largest geographic area in the state and are frequently the busiest.

Scientists at the lab perform work in several different specialties, including DNA testing, trace evidence collection, drugs, toxicology, firearms, finger- and footprints, and document analysis. The office does work for about 185 agencies, Patrick said.

The medical examiner’s office includes four forensic pathologists (whose title is assistant chief medical examiner), five autopsy technicians and six death investigators, as well as other support staff.

Construction will incorporate environmentally friendly concepts, Patrick said, and officials are hoping to have the new building LEED certified.

The current building has served both agencies well, Patrick said. But backlogs have become a problem as the caseload at each office has expanded in recent years.

“We’ve had to accommodate the people that we’ve hired in the past few years just to keep up with the growing backlogs in cases,” Patrick said.

A new facility won’t get rid of the backlogs, but having space for new equipment — much of which can do testing while staffers move onto something else — may help alleviate the problem, Patrick said.

One of the busiest investigative sections at the forensic lab is the drug area, where staffers have to chemically test substances to determine what kind of drug is present.

A boom in meth labs means the office investigated roughly 200 such operations last year, compared with 20 or fewer at each of the state’s three other regional labs.

High-tech additions include several video conference rooms that will allow scientists to testify in court cases from the office, rather than having to take a whole day to drive to a place like Wise County, nearly three and a half hours away.

Perhaps more than anything, though, Patrick and Cooper said they’re glad to be getting new space to stretch out a bit. Technicians won’t have to work in cramped labs made hot by electronics. Staffers will have actual office space. There will even be a large break room central to both the lab and medical examiner’s office.

“When you’re tripping over each other when you’re handling evidence, we make it work, but this new space will really improve the work environment,” Patrick said.

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