Forensic Services Information
Please review a topic below for more information about the Bureau of Forensic Services and how we can help you.
Collecting and Sending Evidence to The Laboratory
What is the proper way to send chemical evidence to the laboratory?
For additional information about how you can ensure your evidence is shipped correctly, please review our evidence submission presentation.
What is the proper way to send image and video evidence to the laboratory?
Q: What is an accelerant?
A: An accelerant is technically anything which speeds up a process. In deliberately set fires, most accelerants are ignitable liquids. The most common ignitable liquid used as an accelerant is gasoline. The BFS determines the presence and identity of ignitable liquids. Whether or not they were used as "accelerants" is for the investigator or the courts to determine.
Q: How do you find ignitable liquids?
A: Fire scene investigators utilize their skills and tools (electronic sniffers and specially trained canines) in the fire scene to find areas with a high probability of the presence of an ignitable liquid. They collect one or more samples and place them in vapor tight containers. These are sent to the laboratory. We encourage, but cannot require, that comparison samples be collected and sent as well. Comparison samples are typically building materials of the same type as the samples submitted for analysis which the investigator believes are not contaminated with any ignitable liquid. These may be from a separate unburned area of the structure or may be a sample of a material used to adsorb or absorb liquids from puddles or containers. As each fire is unique, there may not be an area or item which the investigator is confident of being a proper comparison sample.
The analysts in the Bureau subject the evidence to a technique called "passive headspace concentration" in order to extract trapped ignitable liquid molecules. After being extracted from the evidence sample, the trapped ignitable liquid molecules are put into a liquid solution of carbon disulfide. The solution (extract) is then injected into a gas chromatograph with mass spectral detector. This instrument creates an electronic representation of the organic chemicals in the sample mixture. The complexity of this mixture is represented as a "total ion chromatogram" which can then be further subdivided into specific ion fragment profiles and mass spectra to determine the presence or absence of characteristics specific to ignitable liquids.
The laboratory reports ignitable liquids using the classifications recommended by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) in their standard test method E1618. The table Ignitable Liquid Classifications describes the various classifications and provides examples of the classes. The following table shows the identity of ignitable liquids determined by BFS since 1992:
Findings 1992 to 2017
|No ignitable liquid/Negative||45,152||56.25%|
|Gasoline & Gasoline Mixtures||27,507||32.08%|
|Petroleum Distillates & Petroleum Distillate Mixtures||4,901||5.14%|
|Normal Alkane Products||153||0.20%|
Q: What if somebody mixes several ignitable liquids together?
A: Ignitable liquids can be divided into several classes based on the presence or absence of specific chemical compounds. Familiarity with these classes allows the analyst to distinguish between a medium petroleum distillate and deteriorated gasoline. If a mixture of two or more significantly different ignitable liquid classes were used the analyst would see a mixed pattern and may be able to make a differentiation.
Q: How should evidence from a fire scene be preserved and packaged?
A: Evidence from fire scenes should be packaged so that the sample is protected from both evaporation of volatile residues or contamination of the residues after they are collected. This is best accomplished by placing the sample in an air-tight container. The most common are clean, unused metal cans with a friction lid, which is tightly sealed. Glass jars with tight fitting screw-on lids (using a Teflon type liner) may also be used. If glass jars are used, take care that they will not break during transport or shipment.
Some brands of nylon or polyamide "arson" plastic evidence bags are on the market. Some studies show them to be very useful so long as they are sealed properly. BFS strongly suggests limiting their use to items with odd shapes or bulk that will not fit into a gallon can. If the debris placed inside them has sharp points or edges, the plastic bag could be punctured. Plastic bags must be completely heat sealed. Regardless of the type of container used, place the debris in it without drying as this will reduce the presence of the ignitable liquid traces. The container should never be filled more than fifty (50%) to seventy-five (75%) percent full, as the laboratory needs an adequate vapor space above the debris for testing.
Please see the link to "Guidelines for Submission" on the Bureau Main Page. Please note that unlike other State of Florida Crime Laboratories, BFS has a rule under the Florida Administrative Code that describes the requirements for submitting evidence to the Bureau as well as the requirements for the return of the evidence (FAC 69D-5.001).
Q: What are the key exceptions or differences if I have evidence from explosions or clandestine labs?
A: The Bureau will not accept any intact explosive devises. They must be rendered "safe", or disassembled before submission.
For items from a clandestine laboratory, if there is a suspicion that any drugs are present, the item must be submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) as the Bureau will not accept any drugs for analysis.
Items other than fire debris or organic based solvents should not be directly placed into a metal container as the item may chemically react with the metal. Instead, glass or plastic containers should be used. Be careful to observe if there is a chemical reaction or gas evolution inside the container as this may cause a build-up of pressure in the container to the point where it would burst. Additionally, these types of evidence may require larger sampling amounts to ensure an adequate variety of tests. Please call the Bureau if in doubt.
Q: What can I (the investigator) do to make sure the best sample is sent to the lab?
A: First, take care in selecting the sample to be tested. It is best to take a sample of fire debris from the suspected area(s) of origin between the center and the edge of a pattern suspected of containing an ignitable liquid.
Second, send the sample to the laboratory as soon as possible. Deterioration of ignitable liquids occurs whenever they are not sealed in air-tight containers. Additionally, certain microbes have been known to "eat" components of ignitable liquids. If the concentration of ignitable liquid is low and the presence of microbes high (as in soil samples and mold covered building materials), a delay in sending the sample may cause enough of a change in an ignitable liquid so that the analyst cannot make a clear determination.
Third, if at all possible, send in a "comparison" sample. This would be a sample (preferably un-burned) of the same type of material as in the debris to be tested. For example, if the sample from the point of origin is burned carpet and padding, a sample of the same type of carpet and padding from a protected area (under a bookcase or planter) would be a good "comparison sample." The laboratory will prepare the "comparison" sample under controlled conditions so that the potential interferences can be seen.
Comparison samples are also any absorbents used to collect a sample. A paper towel, gauze pad, or hydrophobic pad used to absorb a liquid should be tested to determine it was contaminated. This test is done by submitting an unused portion of the absorbent material as a separate comparison sample. Comparison samples of any absorbents used to collect a sample should be taken at a different location as ignitable liquid vapors may be absorbed from the air near the scene.
Q: How long will it take to get results?
A: Ninety-five percent of the samples submitted to the Bureau are completed and a report issued in fewer than 8 calendar days. Certain cases, depending on the number of samples and the difficulty in interpreting the results, can be completed in two to three days. These RUSH cases need to meet certain criteria:
- Fatality - If a fatality occurred in the incident it should have rush priority.
- Injured victims or responders. If there are burn victims or first responders who were injured in any phase of the incident (during the fire, fire suppression, scene investigation, or scene clean-up) it should be marked as rush.
- Major fires or explosions with significant dollar losses. If a city block, a large business, or historical site should burn or be involved with an explosion it should be marked rush.
- Suspect in custody/impending court would also be a rush criteria.
Q: Who can submit samples?
A: At this time, the Division of Investigative and Forensic Services Bureau of Forensic Services will accept samples from any government/public service agency in Florida. This includes all police or fire investigation agencies for the state, county, or municipality. This, also, includes investigators from State's Attorney Offices or from the Public Defender's Offices. Other State of Florida or federal agencies investigating incidents occurring in Florida may submit evidence, but should contact the Bureau in advance. In the spirit of forensic cooperation, foreign law enforcement or fire investigation agencies may be permitted to submit evidence under specific instances and with prior approval.
Q: What does an analysis of the evidence cost the submitting agency?
A: At present, the only cost to the submitting agency is the cost of shipping the evidence to the laboratory. The Bureau does not charge for analysis of samples. We do charge reasonable and customary fees for the reproduction of reports, case files, and photographs/images. Foreign submitters must also agree to bear all costs for work performed by the Bureau as well as any costs associated with bringing Bureau personnel to their courts for testimony.
Q: Where can I learn more about the schools that offer degrees in forensics?
A: The following websites list several of the schools and information although there are additional resources if you search the web:
Q: Who do I contact if I need further information?
A: Call Bureau Chief Carl Chasteen at (850) 539-2705 or via e-mail
How to Request Photographic or Video Evidence
Over the years, the Bureau has experienced an increase in the number of "public records requests” it receives. Because records of analyses, photographs and digital images are used in criminal and civil litigation, it is often necessary to prepare reproductions, prints, and enlargements for attorneys and investigators. We respond to these requests using multiple media including compact discs (or DVDs) to contain the requested reproduction photographs, digital images, or case files. From July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017, the Bureau processed 139 public records requests.
For public records requests made by private attorneys and investigators, the cost of processing must be paid by check to the Florida Department of Financial Services. Please contact Pam Kenon at the laboratory should you have any questions.
Note: If you have requested a staff member to be an expert witness at a court proceeding, please take a moment to fill out our Testimony Evaluation form. We use your feedback to help us improve our skills for future legal proceedings.
Most of us have watched the various “forensic” shows on television. You know. The ones where the ruggedly handsome CSI technician drives his brand-new Hum-Vee to the crime scene, pulls out a pocket knife, scratches a few bits of
ash from the burned body, returns to the car, opens the trunk, slides the knife into a really sophisticated bit of electronics, and TA-DA…, a picture of the person who set the fire shows up on the TV screen. NOT LIKELY!!
The Florida Division of State Fire Marshal established its forensic laboratory in the early BFS Lab1970's. Prior to 1990, the laboratory was located in Ocala, FL with the State Fire Marshal's Bureau of Fire Standards and Training. In 1990, the old laboratory was replaced with a new 12,000 square foot facility (containing laboratory, office and conference rooms), additional personnel, and updated equipment. The facility is located outside of Tallahassee, Florida, on the grounds of the Florida Public Safety Institute. On July 1st 2016, the Bureau became part of the Division of Investigative & Forensic Services.
The Bureau currently has a staff of nine full-time and one part-time employee with in excess of 135 years experience in forensic analyses. The Chemistry Section consists of four Crime Laboratory Analysts (two are Senior Crime Laboratory Analysts and two are Crime Laboratory Analysts). The Imaging Section consists of one Crime Laboratory Analyst and one Forensic Technologist. Administration and Operations consists of the Chief of Forensic Services who oversees the entire Bureau, one Administrative Assistant who processes public records requests, one Maintenance Superintendent who ensures the repair and upkeep of the facility, and one part-time OPS receptionist who provides additional administrative support.
The Bureau has incorporated national standards into its analytical protocols, continually seeks training for its personnel, and improves its analytical instrumentation. The Bureau also is accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board - International.
Our staff contribute to the field of forensic science through involvement in organizations such as: the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA), the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD), the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the Technical and Scientific Working Group on Fire and Explosions (T/SWGFEX), and the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) which was created by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Justice to promulgate national consensus standards for forensic science.
Chief ChasteenBureau Chief Carl Chasteen served as the Chair of T/SWGFEX from its inception through 2004. He was selected as T/SWGFEX Vice-Chair in 2008. He also served as Chair of the IAAI Forensic Science Committee for many years between 1993 and 2007. Chief Chasteen has also been a Fellow of the American Board of Criminalistics in Fire Debris since 2008. He is currently an appointee to the Organization of Scientific Area Committees Chemistry and Instrumental Analysis oversight committee.
Lastly, bureau personnel have been encouraged to attend professional symposia, when time and budget will allow, where they network with other forensic professionals. Personnel have, on various occasions, prepared and presented seminars, workshops, and scientific posters at many of these events. Bureau personnel have also written scientific articles published in international forensic/scientific publications as well as chapters of books on various forensic science topics.
In addition to participating in professional organizations, we also help train the next generation of forensic technicians through our internship program. To learn more about our internship program, click here.
Our goal is to provide timely and credible forensic analysis of evidence. The Chemistry Section achieves this objective through its analysis of:
- Fire debris to determine the presence and identity of any ignitable liquids
- Explosives debris and residues to identify chemical components of the explosives
- Non-drug chemicals recovered from clandestine laboratories
Our work is technically complex and difficult. That’s because we work to find evidence that you cannot see or smell. Sometimes the chemicals we are looking for are almost the same as the ones that should be associated with the sample. We work to determine what is extra. We look for trace compounds, which indicate the presence of an ignitable liquid that can turn a suspicious fire into an arson case.
In the calendar year from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016 the Bureau performed 5,977 requests for chemical analyses of ignitable liquids, explosives, and hazardous chemicals.
The sources of that from our last complete customer survey were:
- 85.41% came from our Bureau of Fire and Arson Investigations
- 12.66% came from local fire departments
- 1.39% came from Sheriff’s Offices
- 0.47% came from police departments
Note: Laboratory services are provided to all law enforcement or fire department submitters operating in the State of Florida without cost. Analysts will be made available for expert testimony provided a proper subpoena is presented.
The Bureau offers a variety of imaging services in its digital darkroom including enhancement of still images, special image filtering and creating still images from video footage. In addition to processing images we place our images into a centralized archive storage and potential future use. We processed over 236,350 images from 3,012 cases from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017.
The Bureau provided traditional chemical photographic processing from 1990 through 2007. The Bureau phased out its ability to process 35mm film and transitioned entirely to digital images. However, the Bureau continues to archive pre-2007 35mm film for BFAI investigators.
The Bureau of Forensic Services has nine full-time employees with only four analysts assigned to the examination of fire debris, explosives, or unknown chemical trace evidence. The Bureau processed fire debris, explosives, or unknown chemical requests requiring 7,522 separate chemical analyses in 2015. Typically, cases are assigned for analysis on the day they are submitted. The Bureau has achieved an average turnaround time for sample analysis of 7.8 days with virtually no backlog.
In contrast, the Project Foresight initiative run by West Virginia University examines various statistics provided to it by multiple forensic laboratories across the country. Fire debris, explosives, and chemical analyses are usually considered a part of the "trace" evidence field which can also include analyses of paint, glass, fibers, hair, etc… Project Foresight does not differentiate between the sub-trace disciplines and reported that in August 2015, the Median Turnaround time from the receipt of the last item of evidence to the report being issued was 67 days (Table 19).
To review our customer satisfaction reports, please review the links below:
January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2018
January 1, 2017 through December 31, 2017
January 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016
July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015
January 1, 2014 through June 30, 2014
July 1, 2013 through December 31, 2013
January 1, 2013 through July 1, 2013
Our Forensic Internship Program
The Bureau frequently works with interested Universities to host up to four volunteer student interns to learn Fire Debris Analysis. In the past we have hosted students from:
Auburn University Auburn University
Eastern Kentucky University Eastern Kentucky University
Florida A&M University Florida A&M University
Florida State University Florida State University
Pennsylvania State University Penn State University
University of Central Florida University of Central Florida
University of Lausanne (Switzerland) University of Lausanne
University of Wisconsin - Platteville University of Wisconsin - Platteville
West Virginia University West Virginia University
Our program consists of readings, lectures, and shadowing of an assigned mentor that are designed to provide an intern with theoretical and historical knowledge of fire debris analysis and to a lesser extent fire scene investigation. It works concurrently within an active laboratory so the interns begin working on the program while actively participating in the laboratory. They observe experienced analysts preparing, analyzing, and interpreting debris samples. During the intern’s first few weeks, they also read and become familiar with the laboratory’s “Guidelines for Collection, Packaging and Submission of Evidence”.
While this training will provide a solid background in fire debris analysis it is not sufficient to prepare an intern for independent fire debris analysis. The forensic laboratory that hires the intern on a full-time basis will undoubtedly have its own procedures and protocols which the technician will need to adapt.
As the interns’ proficiency improves, their mentors may allow them to have more hands on work in these areas. An intern will be expected to propose, plan, justify, and execute a research project during his or her time at BFS. He or she will make a presentation on the project at the end of the internship where the intern should be able to show his or her proficiency with completion of a comprehensive oral examination.
To learn more about the intern training program, download our Forensic Internship Training Program Overview.
Training to Other Government Agencies
We have also provided training to personnel from other agencies in various aspects of forensic science, digital imaging, and evidence preservation. Since 2012 we have provided on-going training in fire debris analysis to members of the Royal Bahamian Police Laboratory.
|Carl Chasteen||Chief of Forensic Services|
|VACANT||Senior Crime Laboratory Analyst|
|Amy Pearson||Crime Laboratory Analyst|
|Dee Ann Turner||Crime Laboratory Analyst|
|Sam Blittman||Crime Laboratory Analyst|
|Melissa Stephens||Crime Laboratory Analyst|
|Pam Kenon||Administrative Assistant|
|Kathryn Rawls||Forensic Technologist|
|Sharon Taylor||OPS Receptionist|