Perspective On: A Forensics Lab

Its a little like the hit CBS show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation–a team of experts solving crime by examining pieces of evidence from a scene where things have gone wrong.

By Sara Goudarzi

State, Federal, and Police Relationships Create Unique Management Requirements

It’s a little like the hit CBS show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation—a team of experts solving crime by examining pieces of evidence from a scene where things have gone wrong. It can be as simple as a drug investigation in which a substance is seized during a routine traffic stop and analyzed in the lab. Or it can be part of a more sophisticated case where items like blood and hair are collected in situations of homicide or sexual assault. Either way, the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory (NHSPFL) is trained and equipped to help state officials solve all cases that need examining.

“We’re a relatively small state, [and] there’s only one forensic crime laboratory in our state, so every item from every case that’s collected would be submitted to our laboratory,” says Timothy Pifer, the NHSPFL director.

“We’re a relatively small state, [and] there’s only one forensic crime laboratory in our state, so every item from every case that’s collected would be submitted to our laboratory,” says Timothy Pifer, the NHSPFL director.

“In smaller states, it’s more economically feasible just to have one lab. So, for instance, the northern New England states—Maine, Vermont [and] New Hampshire—each have one crime lab,” Pifer says.

The NHSPFL encompasses approximately 15,000 square feet within the New Hampshire State Police headquarters. Typically, the lab takes in more than 1,000 new cases each month. Each job could have an average of two to three evidence items submitted, so the lab handles approximately 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of evidence each month.

Lab structure

Pifer oversees approximately 47 staff members, 40 of whom are scientists. The rest are administrative and support staff and evidence technicians—those who deal with the intake of evidence.

“Out of 40 scientists, we probably have 15 different backgrounds,” Pifer explains. The lab has medical technologists, chemists, forensic scientists, biologists, molecular biologists and environmental scientists, among others.

Although the academic background of each scientist is important, he or she can be taught, within reasonable limits, to master an area of science utilized in the lab.

Although the academic background of each scientist is important, he or she can be taught, within reasonable limits, to master an area of science utilized in the lab.

This training can take place on the job or at larger U.S. government laboratories.

“A lot of our laboratory training is not only in-house but is augmented by some of the federal laboratory systems, such as the FBI, DEA and DTF laboratories.”

However, Pifer does take into consideration the background and formal training of each scientist before placing him or her in a unit. For instance, those working in the DNA unit are required to have a strong background in genetics and molecular biology.

“So I couldn’t really take a chemist and train him in the field without having that formalized and institutional background,” he says.

The staff works five days a week during normal business hours but is on call during nights and weekends. However, call times have been minimized because Pifer and his personnel have trained law enforcement officers assigned to those shifts to collect evidence for later processing.

NHSPFL is divided into two major groups: the Toxicology Group and the Criminalistics Group. In the Toxicology Group, there are three sections, each with its own supervisor. Within the Criminalistics Group, there are six sections and six supervisors. The section supervisors report to and regularly meet with Pifer to discuss issues within their units. Additionally, the entire lab meets once a month to discuss any concerns and questions the staff might have.

“One of the biggest successes for us is the communication aspect. I communicate very regularly with the entire staff. It’s an opportunity to discuss policies and procedures and also what’s going on with the state and to discuss those issues,” Pifer says.

Forensics vs. traditional labs

In contrast to conventional labs that mostly are used for civil cases, crime laboratories are those where scientists process evidence—such as drugs, hair, fibers and paint particles—seized in connection with criminal probes.

For example, if during a routine investigation police confiscate a suspect substance, they would send it off to Pifer’s team for analysis. “If it’s cocaine or heroin, we actually take that, weigh it and analyze it to prove that it is in fact a controlled drug and we prepare— [using] state-of-the-art instrumentation— formal analytical reports for those police agencies that we serve.”

“And then, at some future date, they would take those analytical reports and use them either to work out a plea agreement or actually go to formal trial,” Pifer explains. “Potentially, we’d be called as expert witnesses to testify on our results.”

Additionally, the scientists at his lab look at computer evidence in connection with cases such as those that involve identity theft or child pornography, among other crimes.

There are, however, several additional features of a forensics lab that distinguish it from a traditional lab. The most notable difference is that it’s a government organization.

“I would say that a large majority of forensics laboratories are set up in a similar way [in regard to the way] in which we report. We are part of a paramilitary organization, which means being within either the state police or local police agencies, so there is a command structure in place—a very, at times, rigid chain of command—that must be followed in order to get approval [for] processes and purchases, as well as [for] travel,” Pifer explains.

Another aspect that sets forensics labs apart from conventional ones is that a majority of forensics laboratories are publicly funded; therefore, the work is not for profit.

“We do not charge for services; we have a budget that’s set by the state,” Pifer says.

“And obviously it’s tough to forecast what next year will bring. We obviously can look at the general trends in crime but, you know, there have been numerous times when emergency requests for additional funding had to have been approved in order to process cases at the end of a fiscal year.”

The general trend shows that the lab’s requests for analyses tend to increase between 3 and 5 percent each year.

Hiring, inventory and maintenance

Pifer doesn’t take care of the inventory himself; he has assigned that task to the criminalists who note and record the needed supplies and take care of subsequent ordering.

“They’re advanced-level criminalists who have a very close working relationship with the SOPs [and] the chemicals and supplies that are necessary to keep their particular work flow going,” Pifer says.

“I approve the orders, but they are the ones who actually put the orders together and who know the inventory,” he adds. “They are senior scientists, but they are typically not section supervisors.”

For the more critical instruments that work day and night, such as the gas chromatography- mass spectrometers—those considered production instruments—the lab has maintenance contracts through the manufacturers. However, the NHSPFL staff looks after any day-to-day maintenance itself.

Pifer takes care of the hiring himself. However, because most criminal laboratories are within a state or local government structure, there’s a very low turnover in terms of personnel.

“It’s not like we’re constantly hiring,” Pifer says. “I think you’d be able to see across the country with crime labs that the work is very satisfying, and in spite of the recent economic downturn, the jobs are generally very stable and very safe.”


Although the instruments used are an important aspect of any forensics lab, one of the key tools for solving some of the criminal cases is databasing.

“Our databases are not only within our laboratory, but now they are linked with other forensics laboratories in terms of DNA analyses and fingerprints,” Pifer explains.

Information regarding DNA and fingerprints is stored in databases within the NHSPFL and also is linked to other forensics labs throughout the country. “It’s the whole computing-IT database feature that really links all or most laboratories together.

“Just a couple of years ago, I think, we actually input a known DNA sample from a convicted felon in our state and we made a match with an unsolved homicide in Alaska from 1994,” Pifer says. “If we were not linked with other states, then that case still would remain unsolved today.”

The technology behind this type of data storage that allows information to cross state lines has been able to link crime labs from the East Coast to the West Coast and has helped solve a lot of crimes over the years, he adds.


The stability that comes with a government job doesn’t always mean that personnel are immune to the economy altogether. Because NHSPFL is linked to the state of New Hampshire’s economy, any associated budget cuts and crises, though typically rare, will affect state agencies. In such cases, the lab will have to reassess its inventory management and also consider possible layoffs.

Pifer says that communication is key in these circumstances. He tries to acquire as much information as possible regarding any crises and passes it along to his staff to dispel any potential rumors.

“It comes down to keeping the morale high and keeping the focus on the mission of the laboratory and not spending as much time worrying about those other aspects,” he explains.

This type of focus, Pifer explains, can only be achieved through the exchange of information, both among top-level management and within the entire laboratory.

“You have to be up front with everyone,” he says. “If it’s a situation where you’ve been called in to make a reduction in operating budgets, you surely can make those decisions at your level. However, as soon as you are allowed to let that information be known—whether it be through e-mail or a face-to-face [discussion] with your staff—it’s better that they hear it from you than read it in the newspaper or see it on television or the Internet.”

And even at times where there are no outside stressors on the lab, Pifer still believes that transparency and exchange of information are the biggest tips he can give managers in running a wellorganized operation.

“Effectual and clear communication is really, I think, the foundation of competent laboratory management,” he explains. “I’ve been a bench analyst before, and I think the biggest complaint is that the management does not communicate effectively what’s going on.”

Often what happens is that a laboratory may be too large or too busy and toplevel supervisors overlook that aspect of management. But Pifer subscribes to what he calls MBWA, which stands for “management by walking around.”

“You need to effectively participate in that forum where you can actually talk to the staff on a personal, one-to-one basis and ask them, ‘How are you doing today?’ ‘What’s on your mind in terms of your job activity?’”

A new day, every day

Pifer and his team face a new set of obstacles and challenges daily. But it’s precisely these stumbling blocks and the unique snags of every case that he thrives on—whether it be a new case investigation request, a different type of homicide, challenges with new instruments or some new technology about to hit the market.

“So I guess it boils down to the fact that every day is different. There’s a lot of problem solving [and] troubleshooting in a forensics laboratory, based on new cases or on resources that you need to acquire to get the job done,” Pifer says.

Published In

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Social Responsibility

Published: September 1, 2009

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Social Responsibility

I do think that were entering an age when scientists are increasingly aware of the social and political implications of their work. Many scientists are not just open to the idea of interacting with the public, but see that as an obligation. - Dietra
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