Chemist Kirk Grates leads a forensic class June 5, teaching students how to identify different chemicals they might encounter in the field. Grates works for the National Forensic Science Technology Center, or NFSTC, which recently relocated and consolidated its headquarters to 8285 Bryan Dairy Road in Largo.
LARGO – In the new laboratory of the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo, a group of military law enforcement students learned how to identify different chemicals using field tests June 5.
“What is the active ingredient in C4?” chemist Kirk Grates asked the small class, who would be taught fingerprinting, IED explosives, DNA collection, digital photography, cellphone and computer data extraction before their forensic training concluded.
The forensic experts teaching the disciplines call it CSI for the battlefield.
“This is a growing field,” explained Garry Ashton, training coordinator and military liaison for the center. “We never did this in the past. All this intelligence information was there for us; we just for some reason never bothered to collect it.”
The National Forensic Science Technology Center, or NFSTC, is a nonprofit company started in 1995 to better educate and provide resources for crime labs. The American Society of Crime Lab Directors saw a need and provided $1,500 to start up the company, explained Communications Manager Chris Vivian.
“So we incorporated as a nonprofit, which cost $1,475,” she said with a laugh. “Over the years, whatever the needs were, we responded to the needs by adding that capability to our company.”
NFSTC started by providing DNA audits and assessments. In the early 2000s, they received grant funding from the National Institute of Justice, becoming one of their primary forensic-science training providers.
“We would train laboratory analysts, DNA analysts, crime scene investigators,” Vivian said.
Funding for that venture dried up due to budget cuts in 2011. Now, the center provides mostly fee-for-service training and analysis, primarily to military clients, including the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Vivian said.
The center also tests and evaluates new technologies for laboratories and law enforcement entities.
“When they spend good money on equipment to use for investigating crimes … if they don’t have what they need or it doesn’t work appropriately, that’s not good for their communities,” Vivian explained.
The center moved and consolidated its offices as of May 27. Its new headquarters at 8285 Bryan Dairy Road, suite No. 125, is not far from its previous location in the Young-Rainey STAR Center. But instead of three different buildings, all of its administrative offices, training laboratories and equipment are housed in one building.
Five other forensic and defense organizations that collaborate with the center moved with it: High Tech Crime Institute, Alakai Defense Systems, Primoris, Homeland Intelligence Technologies and the Forensic Innovation Center.
“Staying co-located with these innovative companies will allow us to collaborate and partner even more efficiently on government and military contracts as they arise,” stated Kevin Lothridge, CEO of NFSTC.
The center provides training that is “as hands-on as possible” to help new forensic scientists get good experience in their fields, Vivian said. While NFSTC does provide some on-site training, most organizations send their budding techs to the Largo training center, away from where their current forensic scientists are working actives cases.
“The benefit of people hiring us is that they would come here, they have fully access to all the equipment. There’s nothing they’re interrupting,” explained DNA specialist Rob O’Brien.
O’Brien worked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as a DNA analyst before joining the center seven years ago. He teaches all aspects of DNA identification in separate modules: extraction, quantifying, amplification, detection and data interpretation. A full training program will take six months up to a year to complete, and trainees have to have a degree in natural science as well as covered four specific topics in school: microbiology, genetics, biochemistry and statistics.
“DNA is the most highly regulated of forensic science,” O’Brien said.
The training is customized to the needs of NFSTC’s clients. Downstairs in the warehouse part of the center, Ashton was preparing supplies of chemicals for the next class the military law enforcement students will take: fingerprinting.
“Virtually everything has fingerprints on it if we know to protect them and then process them. And that’s how we start finding people,” he explained.
Ashton, who served in the Navy for 27 years, acts as the center’s military liaison, making sure the classes provided are current to the needs of the evolving battlefield.
His specialty is explosives, including improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Along with providing hands-on training in the possible materials of IEDs, the center has a few vehicles they use as mock crime scenes in their classes, including one which had been blown up to teach “post-blast investigation training.”
“It’s all about putting that puzzle together of what’s going on or who’s been there,” Ashton said.
For those interested in the field of crime scene investigation, the center provides online courses: nine modules on crime scene management, evidence collection and documentation as well as four modules on crime scene photography. The 16-hour course is $129 and comes with a certificate of completion. Visit tinyurl.com/NFSTC-CSI.