How to Clean the Air in Evidence Management Vaults

Posted on: May 18, 2023

Categories: Evidence Management

In this webinar, Shawn Henderson welcomed a special guest, Gemma DeGasperis from SDAir, to discuss evidence management air quality issues and solutions.

Shawn began by saying, “I’d like to start this webinar the way I do with every other one. First, let’s talk about the Evidence Management Community Forum. That’s a Facebook Group that we set up during the pandemic to build a community for evidence custodians. It’s a place for evidence managers to find answers to the questions that they might have or just bounce ideas off of one another. 

I also wanna shout out to Tracker Products. The reason that we’re able to do training like this, not only online, but live and in person, is because of our partnership with Tracker Products. They keep the lights on here, and this training opportunity is brought to you by the folks at Tracker. If you’re looking at software for your evidence operation, or if you’re just curious about what software can do for an evidence management property room, go to Tracker Products to find out more, and they will be happy to talk to you.

Today, this is episode number 24 and we’re gonna clear the air a little bit. I wish that we had done a little more promotion ahead of time with this topic because I am convinced that it is gonna be one of the more impactful and educational shows that we’ve ever done. The more I go to different evidence vaults and visit people across the country, I am firmly convinced that we are in need of cleaner air to breathe.

It is a problem throughout law enforcement. Evidence custodians know it stinks in most evidence units. That is the first indicator. There are probably more technical ways to define that as a problem, though. 

So, we’re gonna talk about air quality and air filtration in evidence vaults and introduce something cool that we found that will benefit you as an evidence custodian working in or near an evidence vault.

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When we look at the list of things I never thought I would be obsessed over, right down at number eight is air filtration and air quality in evidence vaults. When I was a small child, I never dreamed that I would be obsessed with that; that it would become something that would keep me up at night. That it would be something that I’m passionate about.

In the past, I was a little ignorant about some of the issues related to air quality. Not because I hadn’t looked, but because I hadn’t found the right answers yet. And, I’m always interested in actual solutions. True solutions to old problems. Poor air quality in evidence vaults is an old problem that exists in virtually every evidence vault that I’ve ever been in. There are a couple of exceptions, and I’ll tell you why there are exceptions in a little bit. So all that to say… this is Gemma. 

Introducing Gemma From SDAir

Gemma is with SDAir in Florida. She is a public safety, air quality specialist. And her company distributes something really cool from a company called Healthway. Why don’t you tell ’em a little bit about yourself, Gemma; what it means to be a public safety, air quality specialist.” 

Gemma said, “Basically, I’m certified in public safety air quality. I started in this industry 20 years ago building negative pressure systems in jails. Later, the company that I represent, Healthway,  saw a need for these types of systems in evidence and property rooms. But, there really wasn’t a great solution at the time. Our negative pressure units were definitely too large for an evidence room. 

Healthway specifically developed these public safety products for large, medium, and small evidence rooms. They focus not only on containing the odor but eliminating it. They do this through digital filtration. It is a patented process that Healthway has in its products. It was actually developed with the help of a US grant for germ warfare. 

There is nothing else on the market that can do the things these units can. They will contain and eliminate down to 0.007 microns. To put that in perspective, a red blood cell is 7 microns. Bacteria is at 0.5 microns. HEPA will eliminate up to 0.3 microns. Coronavirus is at 0.1 microns, and our units will capture down to 0.007 microns. 

So, they have been tested against coronavirus as well as some other viruses, and they will eliminate those threats. The units that we’re gonna talk about today are a portable medium size unit and a larger unit. The difference between them is… one will eliminate (clean) up to 1400 square feet and another will eliminate up to 3,500 square feet of space.”

Shawn said, “Let me stop you. Because you know a lot about these things and I don’t. I want to take a moment to educate folks on some basics. As a guy that worked in a vault and communicates with an audience of people that work in evidence vaults, we know anecdotally, “Hey, it smells bad in here.” 

Top 3 Respiratory Health Risks

We’ve all been to training, and we’ve all heard of Aspergillus, and we’ve all heard of the different types of yuck. We all have noses that work, at least somewhat well, so we know when it stinks. But I’d like you to teach us a little bit about the air that we breathe. I mean, I know it stinks in here, but there are really three things that get in the air, that make the air unhealthy for us. So tell us about those.”

Particules

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Gemma said, “I did a CDC report about evidence rooms a few years ago. Evidence rooms are basically storing private property, blood evidence, and drugs. And, especially in Florida, a lot of marijuana. The one thing that you’re gonna find is particles. They are things like Aspergillus, Acremonium, drug particulates, mold, and dust. There’s always a lot of dust. And, you know, some of us just can’t process a lot of different particulates. We find that they’re harmful. Some people can process these particulates and not have adverse health effects, but then there’ll be other people who can’t process them, and they are detrimental to their health.

 VOCs

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VOCs are your stinkies. Those are the things you’re gonna smell. The worst thing on this list is marijuana VOCs. Marijuana – especially if it’s the full plant and roots and dirt – you’re gonna be smelling the mold, and that’s what’s going to give you all those ‘wonderful’ molds like Aspergillus.

So, you have the particles, and then you have the VOCs. We as humans should not be in small contained areas constantly smelling these VOCs because they can be hard on your respiratory system, which can create health issues. I run into so many people in property and evidence that don’t understand why they’re having upper respiratory or constant sinus issues.”

Shawn said, “A couple of things I wanna point out – and correct me if I’m wrong – but fermaldehyde is naturally occurring in a lot of building materials. And it leaches out and out gases over time. Same thing with bricks of cocaine.”

RELATED: DEAR CHIEF…THE THINGS I WISH MY CHIEF UNDERSTOOD ABOUT EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT – PART 1

Gemma said, “Believe it or not, if you’ve purchased any furniture from Amazon, they’re loaded with fermaldehyde. They don’t allow those sales in California because of the amount of fermaldehyde it has in them. It also depends on the ventilation. So these things might not be harmful in a large vented room, but they become more difficult if you’re gonna follow what the CDC says about what an evidence room is supposed to be. An evidence room should have a supply, should not have a return, and should be vented out. Well, that might not be enough air changes to remove all of the particulates and all of your VOCs. And that’s where we run into the problems.”

Shawn said, “And a lot of these facilities can’t easily be retrofitted with a filtration system because they’re old and they’re located in bad places. So let’s talk last about microorganisms.”

Microorganisms

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Gemma said, “This class is basically gonna be your viruses, your bacteria, and your fungi. We can block viruses down to 0.02 to 0.1 microns. So, we can eliminate viruses, bacteria, and fungi. HEPA filters will not be able to eliminate viruses, most of your bacteria, or VOCs.”

Bad Solutions to ‘The Stink’ 

Shawn said, “We know that there’s bad stuff in the air, and historically in evidence rooms, we’ve used some fairly bad solutions to counteract the impact of bad air quality.

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I’ve seen places where they use the old crime scene, I smell dead people trick, and they gear up with a little bit of PPG or put a little Vick’s Vapor rub under their nose, and that’s how they’re able to work for sustained periods inside their vault, which is tragic. I’ve never seen anyone actually use clothespins, but I’ve seen people holding their noses closed. 

Or they’re saying, We’ll just keep the door open. I mean, that’s so wrong on so many different levels, but these are actual bad solutions to bad air quality problems that I’ve seen.

Or they just tell people, It’ll stop stinking in a few months. That’s probably the worst. 

One of the things that I see over and over again is this kind of workaround, we’re just gonna cover the old stink with a nicer stink. So they go through quarts of Fabreze or tons of candles. 

I would encourage you not to just hold your breath or do things to cover it up because these things pose legitimate health risks and consequences beyond just smelling bad. There are better options.

Better Solutions to ‘The Stink’

Obviously, one of the things that we teach in the 2-Day training and certification classes is adequate ventilation. Ventilation is great, it’s better than having a closed room with no ventilation, but all that bad air has to go somewhere.

Evidence Management

Adequate ventilation is better than nothing, but there’s probably something better. The thing that surprised me when I was learning about this at the PEAF conference – and why I said to myself, Dang, everybody needs something like this – is that I put too much faith in advertising. I am very gullible. I’ll watch something on TV, and then I just assume that it’s the gospel truth.

I’d always assumed that having a HEPA filter was an adequate safeguard against most contaminants in the air. As it turns out, it’s pretty good at stopping a lot of the stinky chunks in the air, but they can’t adequately protect us. 

So, the best option is scrubbing that air by using a disinfecting filtration system to actually clean the air around you. And the cool thing is that it’s affordable and accessible for evidence rooms. That’s why I wanted to have Gemma on and talk about SDAir and the products that they sell for Healthway.”

Gemma said, “DFS, as you said, is a Disinfecting Filtration System. It has what we call a V bank filter, which is just basically a metal grid with tiny little squares in it. Any particulates that go into that field are captured. 

Evidence Management

That grid has 17,000 volts going through it, so it’s basically going to take contaminates and eliminate them. If you can imagine a grain of sand, it’s gonna make it 1/1,000,000th of that size and that’s what’s gonna land in the filter. It’s also deactivating anything that would be harmful.”

Gemma changed gears and said, “Let’s talk about HEPA a little bit. It might work in a residential area, but the reason it’s not working in evidence is because of two issues. You have your harmful particulates and you have your VOCs. HEPA will do nothing for VOCs. It’ll eliminate particulates to 0.3 microns. 

In your home, if you wanna use that type of filter, why not? But the VOCs that you need to eliminate – the VOCs are part of what is harmful to your respiratory system – HEPA won’t do that. HEPA is a general filter, like the one you put into your HVAC system at home. It’ll basically take things in and the filter will capture particulates. But imagine that filter as a Petri dish. Within 30 days, if it takes in moisture and it gets dusty or moldy, it’ll start growing mold because it hasn’t eliminated the things it took in.”

The Products

Shawn said, “Yeah, that makes a whole lot of sense. So, tell us about some of the different products you’ve got.”

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Gemma said, “The 950!  This is the powerhouse, but it is also a larger machine. And as you know, most of the evidence rooms that we go into don’t have the space for something like this, but it will eliminate VOCs, as it has a dedicated VOC filter as well as a V bank disinfecting filtration filter. It will clean the air in a 3000-square-foot room and will do five air changes per hour.

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This is the 2000 inline product and it’s a really interesting unit. The picture that you see (above) is in the evidence facility of The Orange County Sheriff’s Office. There was an opportunity here to take up a lot of room. This was installed in a room in between three evidence rooms. So, this particular unit is now able to filter the air in those three rooms. If ever you wanna make an evidence room negative pressure, this is a unit that’ll do that too.

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The Healthway Deluxe. This machine fits everywhere. It’s great for intake, it’s great for dispatch, it’s great for offices, it’s great for evidence rooms. It’ll move about 1300cfm of air. Great for a room that’s about a thousand square feet or a little bit more. It’s very much like the Powerhouse 950, just shrunken down. It has two filters. One is a dedicated VOC filter, the other is the disinfecting filtration system that basically sits on the top. It’s incredibly economical to run. Also, the filters are good for one year.

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The SuperV is a great system if you have an evidence room or an evidence warehouse that has its own HVAC system. This is an inline system that will work with the existing blower of your HVAC system. It doesn’t have a blower in it, that’s why it needs an external one, but it’s minimal in cost to install. And again, it has a dedicated disinfecting filtration system. If we’re dealing with VOCs, we add a VOC filter to it. 

It’s a unit that was actually designed for residential, but then we came out with a unit that would work as a commercial application for evidence rooms. As I said, it needs to be in an area that has its own HVAC system. So, it could be maybe three or four rooms, or it can be in an independent warehouse that has its own HVAC. So, limited applications, but they are out there for people who basically want to clean the air in a facility because this can go on its main HVAC line.”

RELATED: DEAR CHIEF…THE THINGS I WISH MY CHIEF UNDERSTOOD ABOUT EVIDENCE MANAGEMENT – PART 2

Shawn said, “The reason that these products excited me is because they have these tiny units that are about the size of a shredder. I was right next to one while we were having a conversation, and they’re not prohibitively loud. They’re also not prohibitively expensive. They’re affordable, especially given the cost of not doing anything. 

I think it’s essential to tell people about these products so that when they are in need of a solution, or if they have a friend at a different agency that is in need of a solution, they know that solutions exist. 

But, more important than knowing that there is a helpful tool out there, is creating a path for obtaining them for your particular agency. I am convinced that this technology is superior to the other methods of air scrubbing or air filtration that I see most commonly in evidence vaults. But it’s quite another thing to get these things to the end users. 

A friend of mine is the evidence custodian for a little county in East Texas, and they’re very ‘murdery’ in that part of the world. She takes in a large volume of evidence for such a small agency. I went to visit her a couple of weeks ago, and I saw one of the little Healthway devices in there and I was like, That’s what I’m talking about! 

I asked her about it, and I think she probably met Gemma or someone from SDAir at the TAPEIT conference and thought, Man, I need to get one!

4 Tactics to Obtain the Resources You Need

You can use this process (below) for other things that you need to obtain, like evidence-tracking software. It’s not just about an air filtration system, but a process to follow if you’re trying to obtain something like this for your agency. The main thing that you have to do is get to the ‘yes.’ Get somebody that controls the purse strings to say yes.

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I would recommend the following four steps for fresher air. Most of the problems that exist with related to air quality within an evidence vault are tangible. They’re observable problems. So, document the problems and take photos. 

Documentation

If you’ve got mold in your operation, take photos. If you’ve got other issues that are indicative of air quality issues, take photos. If you’ve got dust just laying around everywhere, gathering on shelves, those are other indicators of air quality issues. 

There are little home test kits that you can use to test specifically for mold that will give you back a report on the specific type of mold strain that you’re seeing when you swab it. 

And, if you have employees experiencing health issues related to evidence rooms – and this happens more often than I’d like to know – the vaults themselves may be health hazards. And people that work in those for extended periods of time, it’s no coincidence that they experience health issues, like respiratory symptoms that you would have if you worked in another contaminant area or zone.

So, start to document all the little issues that give you information to build the case for, Hey, we’ve got an air quality issue here. Just telling somebody that the room stinks is not gonna do it. The stink is indicative of a bigger problem. If it stinks because of biological evidence in there… or if it smells like dope, it’s cuz you’ve got little dope particles floating through the air.

I’m not a scientist, but if you can smell it, it’s in the air. It’s in your nose now and your nose decoded it and sent it to your brain and the harmful effects happen afterward. So, we wanna document these things. We wanna create a justification. 

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Justification

Number two, breathe out and start justifying it. There are a couple of ways that you can justify air quality in your evidence vault. One, you wanna create an appropriate storage environment for your evidence. 

Obviously, that means it’s relatively free of mold and other airborne contaminants. Those airborne contaminants like mold can destroy evidence if the moisture levels rise and the conditions develop for mold growth. It doesn’t take too many spores to have a spore party that will grow and contaminate the whole vault. 

The other would be to refer to standards and best practices for managing evidence – whether it’s ours or another organization’s – and look at the recommendations they make about air quality. I believe we have a little bit about that.

I think one of the best ways to communicate the need for technology like this is to let your chain of command understand their liability exposures. In an evidence fault, there are two true liabilities associated with air quality. One is employee health and safety. To me, that’s the most important. And, number two would be evidence contamination and cross-contamination. 

If we don’t have clean air and filtered air going in and out of these vaults, if we’re not storing evidence inside of clean conditions or clean air conditions, then we can pretty much guarantee  that we are creating conditions that could likely result in the contamination of evidence. That’s justification. But you have to document these things.

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Preparation

This was fun for me because I love to go into evidence vaults and I like to calculate the volume of the room length, times width, times heights. I like to calculate the flow. Measure the length and the width of a register and then the airflow coming out of the register. Take those two measurements and you can actually measure the changes per hour in the air. 

The goal is 12 to 14 changes per minute. You can achieve that in a couple of different ways. Does it all have to come from the filtration system? No. Some of it’s gonna come from the air itself, but know how many changes per minute you’re getting or changes per hour you’re getting in your vault and then know the solution. 

I really think that these products are the best solution for most of us. It would benefit a lot of us to have this type of technology. They’re gonna make our environment safer for working and make our evidence less likely to be contaminated. I think it’s a good product. I wouldn’t talk about it if I didn’t think it was cool. 

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Requestification

The last step is requestification. Make a formal business request, based on objective facts, up through your chain of command. You’ve documented the problem, you’ve defined the appropriate solution, and you’ve provided justification that would substantiate an expenditure for something like this

If you can do that, more than likely it’s gonna make it much easier for a chief executive – or whoever’s controlling the fiscal purse strings at your agency – to say yes to a legitimate business decision. 

Q&A

Okay, we’ve got a couple of questions from the viewers. Gemma, I’m gonna let you answer this. Well, I’m gonna let you answer all of the ones related to air quality cuz I don’t know the answers.

We have a new facility open in 2016 with a built-in air purification system. But we have a small drug room where the filtration system resides and we still smell marijuana. It’s not as strong as it was in an old facility, but it’s still detectable

Okay, what might be some causes or why might that be? Why might that set of conditions still exist?”

Gemma said, “I’m assuming that this is something that’s not portable, something that is built in. It might not be processing VOCs and that’s why you’re smelling it. An air filtration system… the only way it can process VOCs is to have some type of carbon. You have to have a carbon filter in there. It might be possible to put a carbon filter inline to capture your VOCs. I’m kind of blind cuz I don’t know what system this is, but if I had to guess it’s probably doing a great job eliminating particles, but it’s just enough not to eliminate VOCs.”

Shawn said, “Makes sense. That was the same answer I would’ve given you Rosa, cuz now I’m gonna pretend like I know a lot of stuff. There’s another question. I’m gonna assume the answer to this question is no, it wouldn’t help. This next agency has mold in their refrigerators… like where they store blood. 

Would air filtration, outside of the refrigeration system, reduce the possibility for mold growth inside a closed cold storage refrigeration system?

Gemma said, “No. The reason that you’re getting the mold in the refrigeration system, is because you probably have an excessive amount of humidity, which is gonna happen in refrigeration. 

So let’s look at it this way… let’s say it’s in an evidence room where marijuana and other things are getting stored. Those spores are getting in. So, I would go with a no.”

Shawn said, “Would one of these devices be effective inside a walk-in fridge?”

Gemma said, “Oh yeah! I’ve actually done that application before. Even though it was cold storage, it still had really bad VOCs. So that’s the reason we put it in there.”

Shawn said, “Here are a couple of questions. This is probably a good one. Cost and pricing.”

Gemma said, “The 950 with a VOC filter is an MSP of $4995.00. That unit has the seven-stage filtration system. The Healthway Deluxe is $1095.00. And, as I mentioned, the filters are typically a 12-month thing. The filter replacement for each of them is $280. 

I love the Deluxe because it’s manageable, right? It probably can do 75% of the evidence rooms nationwide – as far as size – and it’s not an expensive solution.”

Shawn said, “That’s the one that I saw at Vanana County. It’s a very small evidence vault. They were using the Deluxe. I think that’s one of the things that sold me and why I wanted to have you on. A thousand bucks is not cheap, but it is not expensive for the type of filtration and the type of air movement that the unit provides. And, the 280 bucks every year for filters, I mean that’s a nominal investment in employee health and protecting the quality of forensic evidence.

All right. I’ve got another question here before we wrap up. I’m gonna answer this one because I want to pretend that I have knowledge that I don’t have, but now I feel so knowledgeable. I feel like I can answer it and Gemma will be here to correct me if I’m wrong. But I hope I’m not, cuz I’m really feeling it.” 

We have an air scrubber in our vault. It does well, but there’s still the smell of marijuana. Is this an indication that the unit is the wrong size or has the wrong air filter? 

Shawn said, “Both of those are possibilities. If you’ve got too small of a unit that doesn’t filter the right amount of air through, then yeah, the unit itself could be too small. The filter size would be kind of a stock thing and you’d be able to see, Oh, this doesn’t fit.

But, I think there might be another issue here. And that’s the VOCs again. If your air scrubber is not designed or intended to eliminate VOCs then that might be the problem. It might be the type of unit that you’re using.”

Gemma added, “There’s one way that they can figure this out pretty easily. Get the specs on the current unit that they have, qualify what square footage you have and from there you’ll be able to tell. And then the specs on the unit will tell you if there’s any VOC component to it. Meaning, if there’s any carbon in the unit.”

Shawn said, “All right. Last three questions and we’ll wrap up here for today. One – What type of warranty do these units have?”

Gemma said, “All of our units have a two-year parts and labor warranty. These are all US-made products. All are made in Pulaski, New York. If no one knows where that is, it’s near Syracuse. That’s where our manufacturing plant is.”

Shawn said, “Question two – Other than the purchase price and the cost of filters – which would be 280 bucks -are there any other yearly maintenance or any service requirement associated with the machine?

Gemma said, “No, none.”

Shawn said, “The last question is from James, my partner. Oh, there’s more! This is good. I love questions, and I’m gonna answer a couple of them and we’ll probably go offline here to answer them all. 

What’s the difference between an ozone generator and an air scrubber?”

Gemma said, “Basically what ozone does is… it takes in air and uses ozone to mask the VOC smell in the air. The issue with ozone is, too much ozone is harmful to us as homo-sapiens. Our chemical makeup does not want high levels of ozone.”

Shawn said, “Okay. I’m also gonna answer this last question for you just to prove that I became so smart this hour that now I possess real knowledge. I feel good about me.” 

If an agency has four small evidence rooms, what do you recommend? 

Shawn said, “I’m gonna assume that the answer is… It depends on the size of those evidence rooms and the capacity of the unit.”

Gemma added, “Exactly. I would need just a little bit more information about the size. Do they share a common venting system? So there are a couple of different things to look at before you could figure out an application.”

Shawn said, “But I do know someone that can answer those questions and it’s not me. So if you have questions about air filtration and air quality that you wanna address with someone that knows something about it, contact Gemma. She’s a great resource.” 

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