Survey of Forensic Science Laboratories by the Technical Working Group for Fire and Explosions (TWGFEX) by Allen, Case, and Frederick (Forensic Science Communications, January 2000)
January 2000 - Volume 2 - Number 1
Stephen P. Allen and
Stuart W. Case
National Center for Forensic Science
University of Central Florida
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The results of a 56-question national survey that was designed to elicit information about fire and explosion debris analysts and the forensic laboratories they staff were announced in April 1999. This article and the accompanying tables summarize those results, which were initially provided to the Technical Working Group for Fire and Explosions (TWGFEX) and the National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS), which sponsored the survey.
TWGFEX was formed during a symposium for fire and explosion professionals from analytical and crime scene disciplines who met in April 1997 to identify problems encountered in the performance of their duties and to propose solutions to the problems. This meeting, the National Needs Symposium, was the first anti-terrorism effort of the NCFS.
NCFS was founded only a few months prior to the symposium, on March 17, 1997, when the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the University of Central Florida (UCF) entered an agreement authorizing the creation of NCFS. Federal legislation set the goal of NCFS:
To assist in the fight against terrorism by creating a unique laboratory facility designed and staffed to provide technical assistance to the forensic science and law enforcement communities.
Legislative initiatives, sponsored through the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime, were instrumental in designating UCF as the site for NCFS. UCF worked with the staff of the Subcommittee to obtain additional federal funding from the NIJ for fiscal year 1998. The additional funding allowed UCF to create a national center to enhance the ability of law enforcement professionals to combat terrorism.
The major role of NCFS is sponsoring TWGFEX and fostering the development of national guidelines for the collection and analysis of fire and explosion debris. TWGFEX committees will develop the guidelines, and NIJ will publish and distribute the guidelines after a widespread consensus review. NCFS, with guidance from its advisory board and in cooperation with the NIJ, will assist in implementing the guidelines at the federal, state, and local level. NCFS will provide the law enforcement community with training, research, and tools to effectively improve the quality of fire and explosion investigations.
NCFS will also support the forensic science and law enforcement communities by conducting fundamental research, providing tools to enhance efficiency and effectiveness, and promoting the use of electronic media to access and exchange information. Additionally, NCFS will identify laboratory needs; promote cooperation and exchange between NCFS and the forensic science, law enforcement, academic, government, and business communities; and respond to new forms of terrorism with the provided tools and processes.
In August 1998, TWGFEX members held their initial organizational meetings and began outlining plans and goals. The members of this new group realized there was little up-to-date information available about the laboratories conducting fire and explosion debris analyses; about the methods used for the analyses; about the analysts’ qualifications and training and educational needs; and about demographics. The newly formed TWGFEX committees recognized the need for a national survey of the laboratories and analysts conducting fire and explosion debris analyses.
The Director and the Advisory Board of the NCFS concurred with the need for a national survey of fire and explosion debris analysts and agreed to support and fund this first important TWGFEX project. To create the survey, the NCFS approached the UCF Survey Research Laboratory headed by Dr. Randy Fisher of the Psychology Department. The project was assigned to Dr. Christina Frederick, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at UCF who has extensive background in survey creation, test development, evaluation research, and project management. Dr. Frederick met with the TWGFEX chairs group and collected relevant information for inclusion in the survey. With this information, Dr. Frederick edited, revised, and formatted the questions. The TWGFEX chairs group reviewed the initial revision and provided additional feedback to Dr. Frederick. The survey underwent a second revision.
The final revision was approved in early December 1998, and the survey was mailed to 610 fire and explosion debris analysts across the United States. The survey was completed in March 1999, and the results were presented to the NCFS and TWGFEX the following month.
The survey consists of 56 questions grouped into five sections:
- Job Description,
- Education and Training,
- Analytical Protocols, and
- General Information.
The demographic questions (1-17) are designed to establish the background of fire and explosion debris analysts and include questions pertaining to education, years of experience, and the laboratory setting.
The focus of the job description questions (18-19) is to determine the nature and range of work done by fire and explosion debris analysts. Responses pertaining to duties range from crime scene investigation to the types of laboratory procedures performed.
The education and training questions (20-31) are designed to determine what level of training and education is considered critical to each category of work, what types of courses would be beneficial, how analysts are trained, and how competency is measured.
The questions dealing with analytical protocols (32-45) request information about proficiency testing requirements, extraction techniques, analytical protocols, and knowledge and use of various standard analytical methods.
A series of general information questions (46–56) elicit responses pertaining to funding levels, TWGFEX activities and future projects, and Internet access and Web-based resources.
Almost 43 percent (24) of the questions were designed to assess the survey respondents’ attitudes about professional certification; specific academic and professional training courses; continuing education; competency testing; laboratory techniques, methodologies, and tests; ASTM standards and guides; and availability of information and resources. The survey respondents were asked to use either a 5-point or 7-point Likert rating scale, which consists of a number of response alternatives. Those responding to the survey were given rating alternatives on a numbered continuum ranging from less to more, low to high, or disagreement to agreement levels.
For this survey, all questions with a 1–7 or a 1–5 rating system use the convention that the lowest numbers represent values that are not important, not essential, or infrequently used, and the highest numbers represent values that are of high importance, essential, and frequently used.
As previously noted, 610 surveys were sent to private, local, state, and federal forensic laboratories throughout the United States. Laboratories were chosen from a variety of resources in order to achieve maximum coverage. The largest sampling consists of member laboratories of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD). Two hundred and sixteen (35 percent) surveys were returned, which indicates a high level of interest among the recipients in the issues addressed. (The return response rate on mailed surveys is generally 10 to 50 percent. In an extensive survey such as this, 35 percent is considered excellent.)
The survey responses reveal some interesting differences between fire and explosion debris analysts. Of the respondents, 71.3 percent identified themselves as fire debris analysts, whereas 38.9 percent identified themselves as explosion debris analysts. (The total is greater than 100 percent because some analysts conduct both types of analyses.)
Age and gender of the respondents are within predictable ranges. At the time of the survey, the mean age was 39.7 years for fire debris analysts and 44.1 years for explosion debris analysts. The survey population of fire debris analysts is 81.1 percent male and 18.9 percent female, and the survey population of explosion debris analysts is 82.1 percent male and 17.9 percent female.
All respondents reported college degrees. Table 1 presents survey information regarding the survey respondents’ academic fields of study.
One-third of the respondents listed no specific academic discipline. Those reviewing the survey responses have concluded that the question designed to elicit this information was probably overlooked by the respondents.
Those surveyed represent a broad spectrum of experience. The mean for both fire and explosion debris analysts is 12 years of experience with a standard deviation of 8.4 for both groups, indicating that 67 percent of the respondents have between 3.6 and 20.4 years of experience. This is important to confirm that the survey reached an appropriately experienced audience.
Responses to the question related to the percentage of workload devoted to either fire or explosion debris analysis indicate that fire debris analysts spend 42.2 percent of their time on fire or explosion debris analysis, and explosion debris analysts spend 20.6 percent of their time on similar analysis. This is not necessarily surprising; however, the standard deviation for both sets of data, 32.4 for fire and 26.8 for explosion debris analysts, is quite large, indicating that there is wide latitude in the amount of work time devoted to cases related to fire and explosion debris analysis.
The survey responses reflect that 19.2 percent of the respondents are certified by the American Board of Criminalists (ABC). In response to the question of the significance of ABC certification, the respondents have rated its significance, on a Likert scale of 1–7, at only 3.2 with a standard deviation of 1.9.
In the 216 surveys returned, 175 (81 percent) respondents have reported that they work in a laboratory that is ASCLD-LAB accredited or that is seeking ASCLD-LAB accreditation. Four respondents have reported that they work in a laboratory that is accredited by another agency’s accreditation.
Respondents were provided a listing of 10 investigative activities and 11 laboratory procedures and were asked to indicate which of the activities and procedures they performed, and how many times per year each was conducted. Tables 2 and 3 indicate the percentages of analysts who conduct the investigative activities and laboratory procedures in their discipline.
The responses recorded in Table 3 show that fire debris analysts work more exclusively within the fire debris discipline, to the exclusion of other disciplines, than do explosion debris analysts in their discipline. Also, a significant difference between the groups of practitioners can be seen in the percentage of analysts who conduct crime scene work. Among those who conduct only fire debris analysis, 18.0 percent conduct some crime scene work; among those who conduct only explosion debris analysis, 29.4 percent conduct some crime scene work; and among those who conduct both analyses, 47.2 percent conduct some crime scene work. The survey responses indicate that those who specialize in fire debris analysis rarely conduct crime scene reconstruction or execute search warrants, whereas those who conduct explosion debris analysis are moderately involved in the processes.
Education and Training
The surveyed fire debris analysts agree that the entire chemistry curriculum is important to their discipline. However, general organic and analytical chemistry courses were considered crucial. On the 1–7 Likert scale, instrumental analysis is rated 6.57, organic chemistry is rated 6.34, general chemistry is rated 6.20, and analytical chemistry is rated 5.99.
When asked about traditional training for fire debris analysts, respondents have rated all of the suggested areas highly. Those surveyed have rated expertise in analytical examination of ignitable liquids 6.83, and expertise in analytical examination of fire debris is rated 6.78. An understanding of the chemistry used in the petroleum industry is rated 5.65. In response to the question related to the importance of fire debris analysts understanding certain instrumental analysis procedures, gas chromatography and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry are rated 6.80 and 6.64, respectively. In comparison, the respondents have rated expertise in all other instrumental procedures significantly lower.
The survey included questions concerning the minimum on-the-job-training necessary for new fire debris analysts, specifically those with no previous experience but with instrumental or other forensic skills. The results are reported in Table 4.
Survey respondents have also supplied their opinions on forensic training for new analysts and the continuing education courses that would be of greatest interest to experienced analysts. Table 5 summarizes the responses to the questions on the 1–7 Likert rating scale.
Using the 1–7 rating Likert scale, the surveyed explosion debris analysts have rated instrumental analysis course work the highest (6.52) and advanced physics lowest (3.10). General chemistry, analytical chemistry, organic chemistry, and inorganic chemistry were all rated higher than 5.69.
The surveyed explosion debris analysts have also rated general training course work and explosives analysis course work, using the 1–7 Likert rating scale. The results are depicted in Table 6.
The survey’s sponsors want to know the amount of on-the-job-training needed for inexperienced and experienced explosion debris analysts. The survey respondents’ opinions are reflected in Table 7.
The surveyed explosion debris analysts have also responded to questions regarding their opinions on forensic training for new analysts and the types of continuing education courses that would be of greatest interest to experienced analysts. Their responses are highlighted in Table 8.
The final questions in this section are designed to elicit opinions from the surveyed fire and explosion debris analysts about competency testing. The combined responses for both categories of analysts reveal that approximately 1/3 of the respondents believe that more than 30 competency samples should be examined by analysts in training prior to handling evidentiary samples. Approximately 2/3 of the respondents have indicated that competency tests are required by their laboratories throughout training and at the end of the training process. Surprisingly, 12 respondents out of the 199 who responded to that question have indicated that their laboratories require no competency testing.
The first of these relates to extraction and analytical technologies used in laboratories. In reply to Question 37, on a Likert scale of 1–5, passive headspace (the use of activated charcoal strips) is frequently used, with a rating of 4.22. Solvent extraction is rated 2.52, simple headspace is rated 1.86, and dynamic headspace is rated 1.71. According to the respondents, gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and gas chromatography/flame ionization detection are, essentially, the only techniques used, with ratings of 4.01 and 3.04, respectively.
This information represents encouraging news about the quality of fire debris analysis in U.S. laboratories. The extraction systems reported are legitimate technologies and their frequency of use is not a surprise. Additionally, the frequent use of gas chromatography and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry for ignitable liquids and debris extractions show that these instrumental techniques are recognized to be the only ones that should be used in routine casework.
The second area of focus concerns familiarity with and use of E-30 Committee fire debris analysis protocols published by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). One survey question is designed to determine the level of use of ASTM procedures by fire debris analysts. Of the fire debris analysts who responded to this question, 79.8 percent have stated that they utilize ASTM E-30 protocols.
A second question asks how closely analysts adhere to various ASTM procedures. Responses, at least in the case of some standards, appear to have been answered more in line with “How often do I use this technique?” rather than “How closely do I adhere to the requirements of the technique?” Nonetheless, ASTM standards 1387 (gas chromatography), 1618 (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry), 1412 (passive headspace concentration), 1492 (evidence in a forensic laboratory), and 1459 (physical evidence labeling) appear to be adhered to at a modest level (see the NCFS Web site for the responses to the ASTM standards adherence questions). Questions in future surveys will be written to determine the level of adherence to standards.
The surveyed explosion debris analysts have indicated, using the 1–7 Likert scale, how often they used a variety of chemical tests and instrumental procedures. The responses are highlighted in Table 9.
The responses regarding analytical technologies used for explosion debris analysis demonstrate that chemical and physical methods such as microchemical analyses, spot tests, polarized light microscopy, and stereomicroscopy are emphasized, whereas higher technologies are subordinated. There is moderate usage of Fourier transform infrared analysis and scanning electron microscopy/energy-dispersive x-ray; however, other sensitive and useful analytical techniques such as gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography, ion chromatography, and capillary electrophoresis are used, surprisingly, only infrequently.
The ten questions in this section of the survey elicited a variety of information from the respondents, including laboratory funding levels for continuing education, level of interest in continuing education via distance learning technology, access to Internet resources, and the importance of future project proposals.
Additionally, respondents have rated the importance of specific TWGFEX projects, including national standards for report writing, a national database for chromatographic data for ignitable liquids, and a national source for ignitable liquid standards. Table 10 summarizes the ratings on a 1–7 Likert scale.
Respondents have provided a surprisingly low rating when asked to rate the level of encouragement given for continuing education. Perhaps follow-up questions could ask a sample of supervisors to rate the level of encouragement they provide to fire and explosion debris analysts.
Survey results reveal a good conformance between TWGFEX priority projects and the expressed needs and interests of the fire and explosion debris analysts. For example, the respondents have expressed a strong desire, 5.5 on the 1–7 Likert rating scale, for TWGFEX initiatives to validate and publish guidelines for fire and explosion debris analysis. This project has been given the highest priority in the TWGFEX fire and explosion debris analysis working committees.
Survey respondents have indicated strong interest in a reference materials database, which is rated 6.0 on the 1–7 Likert scale. TWGFEX and NCFS are currently establishing a national database of chromatographic data for ignitable liquids. This database is in the planning stages, with expected availability in the year 2000. NCFS will establish an oversight committee, develop protocols for the acquisition of reference ignitable liquids, establish quality assurance requirements, and set quality controls.
Survey responses about analytical techniques used by explosion debris analysts indicate that establishing more rigorous procedures is necessary. The TWGFEX Explosion Debris Standard Protocols Committee will examine the results of this survey question and make appropriate recommendations for a more robust combination of analytical tests.
Survey respondents have expressed a desire for better proficiency testing. A significant percentage of respondents have indicated that they have not experienced blind proficiency testing methods. According to survey responses, some fire and explosion debris analysts have not experienced regular internal proficiency testing methods. This survey data supports the development of new laboratory certification methods and requirements.
On the basis of interest expressed in the survey, members of TWGFEX have formalized job descriptions for a variety of positions of interest to fire debris and explosion debris analysts. Members of TWGFEX have also developed basic (minimum) hiring and training requirements for fire debris analysts. The descriptions and requirements will be presented to the community for comment.
One important issue under review by members of the TWGFEX is the establishment of standard analytical protocols for fire and explosion debris analysis. Guidelines for a variety of procedures of interest to the fire debris analysts have been published by ASTM. Members of TWGFEX are reviewing the protocols and are taking an active role in ASTM committee activities for protocol recommendation. Additionally, TWGFEX personnel are working on protocols that are not under the sponsorship of ASTM, such as the development of a systematic approach to fire debris analysis, procedures for liquid sample comparison, and guidelines for proficiency test preparation. TWGFEX explosion debris analysts are considering establishing standard analytical protocols in non-ASTM format. They are also considering a protocol format that is product, not instrument, specific.
This survey has identified a need for training for fire and explosion debris analysts. There is strong support from survey respondents for course presentation through regional schools and Web-based training, and the NCFS will make every effort to present the training activities in those formats.
For example, the NCFS is now formalizing a course in post-blast investigation. This will be designed for qualified explosion crime scene and laboratory personnel and is being developed as a combination Web-based course for classroom instruction followed by hands-on crime scene work at an explosives demonstration facility. Numerous topics identified by the survey are being incorporated into the course, including the history of explosives, types and composition of explosives, and the construction and recognition of incendiary devices.
Additionally, NCFS has teamed with the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to present courses in basic and advanced fire debris analysis and analytical examination of ignitable liquids. The courses will be funded by the NCFS. A similar teaming effort will provide courses for explosion debris analysts.
Fire debris analysts who responded to the survey have expressed interest in petroleum chemistry and fire dynamics. To address these issues, a course for fire debris analysts, focusing on the organic chemistry of ignitable liquids, petroleum products, combustion and fire dynamics, and analytical instrumentation, is being developed for presentation in 2000.
In addition to the post-blast investigation course being developed for explosion debris analysts and crime scene practitioners, a Web-based introductory level course on explosions and explosives is being considered. This course would provide the basic knowledge needed by analysts and crime scene practitioners to conduct their explosion investigations.
Also, Web-based courses in laboratory safety are planned. The topics will include bloodborne pathogens and general chemical safety.
These initiatives are a direct product of the mission of NCFS and the direction given by this survey. Members of NCFS and TWGFEX are indebted to those who responded to the survey. The enthusiasm with which the forensic community received the survey will guide TWGFEX efforts to serve that community in an effective manner.
Some areas of interest to fire debris and explosion debris analysts have not been queried adequately by this survey. A brief, focused survey will be issued in the near future to provide direction in setting quality standards, address the research interests of analysts, clarify ASTM protocol questions, and cover other areas of interest.
An overall view of the survey leads to the recognition that fire and explosion debris analysts are conscientious and dedicated to a high-quality analytical product. Advances in technology, bolstered qualifications and experience of laboratory personnel, implementation of proficiency testing, accreditation procedures, and an emphasis on overall laboratory improvement by ASCLD have contributed to laboratory quality and capabilities that have been demonstrably improved in the fire debris and explosion debris analysis disciplines.
The staff of NCFS and members of TWGFEX wish to thank the National Institute of Justice and the University of Central Florida for funding this survey.
Complete, raw data from the TWGFEX Survey of Forensic Science Laboratories can be found on the NCFS Web site at http://ncfs.ucf.edu. Information was extracted from the raw data to differentiate the responses of fire debris analysts and the responses of explosion debris analysts. As a result, the information reported in this article for some of the questions may differ slightly from the information reported in the survey on the Web site.