When it comes to scenes of crime and trauma, shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order” do a great job of keeping viewers hooked with high octane scripts and life-like special effects. But what they don’t typically delve into is what happens after a dead body is removed from a site and the forensics team has gathered all their evidence.
In real life, this is when professionals like Steve McDonald, Guy Bruyere and Joseph Balint from FirstOnSite Restoration step in. Though their clients are grateful they exist, we can bet they wish they never needed them.
“One of the most common reasons we get called in for a trauma clean-up is following the discovery of a dead body,” says Steve McDonald, District General Manager for BC. “In some cases that body may have been there for days, weeks or even a month. Our role is to safely handle the aftermath – the residual fluids, mould and odours, the blood splatter if there is any, but not the body itself.”
Although FirstOnSite may be hired by the condo or the unit owner directly, the restoration company never enters a scene without having consulted with police authorities first. McDonald explains that this is the only way to ensure safety, proper process and that evidence isn’t destroyed—something some have learned the hard way.
“Listening to the wrong person, even a unit owner who hires you, could cause a great deal of consternation for the next of kin, the authorities and even our company if the scene was not officially closed and released,” he says. “Sometimes people have nefarious motives, other times they may not be qualified to make that decision, so having the police release the scene to us is essential, and this works best for everyone.”
Trauma vs. crime scene
From accidental deaths and suicides, to heart attacks and murders, FirstOnSite has helped following almost every cause of death imaginable. But trauma, Guy Bruyere, Project Manager for the Vancouver area explains, doesn’t necessarily mean someone has died at the site and nor does it necessitate a crime. In the condominium setting, trauma might refer to a non-life-threatening injury resulting from a fist fight or a physical altercation between residents. It can also mean death from natural causes, or from common domestic accidents like slip and falls on wet floors.
“What many condo managers don’t consider is the upheaval that can result from the discovery of a single dead body in a unit,” says Bruyere. “Depending on how the individual died and the duration the body has been left undiscovered, clean-up may be required in the units below if blood and fluids have drained through the floor. It is sensitive and distressing, as well as possibly hazardous.”
To complete a job with sensitivity, discretely and with minimal disruptions to the residents, typically the condominium management will post a notice alerting tenants to the fact that a work crew is on the scene to do a clean-up in a unit, or in the common area if that were the case.
“If the event was reported in the news, or if emergency police, fire or ambulance crews had been dispatched, chances are everyone in the building knows what’s going on,” says Bruyere. “Our role is not to get into the specifics of any situation. We are only there for a safe clean-up and to secure the area so that no one can access it but us.”
Meth labs and grow-ops
Illegal drug operations have been prevalent in multi-residential buildings, particularly since the early 2000s. “When you are dealing with hazardous and combustible material, when everything is boarded up with only one entrance into a confined space, there are considerable dangers,” says Joseph Balint, Project Manager for the Vancouver area. “We’ve cleaned up meth labs and marihuana grow ops, which are a significant cost to condominiums and often not an insured peril.”
Balint says the specialty cleaners who handle these jobs are FirstOnSite employees who have undergone specialized training in biohazard and remediation. Much of the training, he says, revolves around on site work safety—using the personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to keep the wearer’s body injury-free and safe from exposure to heat and chemicals. They are also trained on how to safely contain an area, and remove and dispose of any biohazardous material so as not to cause cross-contamination.
“The job is definitely not for everyone,” Balint says. “Typically it’s the same crew that deals with these types of crime scenes. It takes a certain person to be able to walk onto a job like that without any anxiety. Meth labs blow up. Often electrical systems have been altered by non-electricians. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Authorization and due-diligence
Beyond the obvious essential clean-up services FirstOnSite provides, there’s also the matter of negotiating the delicate and intricate process of identifying and securing different levels of authorizations. Who is most affected may not always also be who is ultimately responsible. Next of kin to consult? Unit rental, ownership and property ownership issues? Are insurance companies involved? What do they cover? Connecting these administrative dots and corresponding with the right individuals is all part of the process, requiring due-diligence and know-how as well as compassion.
“When you are dealing with the personal contents of a victim or a deceased tenant, often authorization is required from six or seven different parties,” says McDonald. “This is one of the reasons we don’t advise hiring a local handy man or managing it alone. There are cases where poor decisions have been made to save a dollar. For instance, an owner might tear up an area without running mould abatement then simply cover it with drywall, or electrical systems might be overlooked. Or personal family mementos might be discarded before family members have had a say.”
Balint says depending on the situation—where the incident occurred in the building and whether there was a crime involved—the path to restoration can be difficult to navigate. “Relying on the experts reduces your chances that errors are made, and ensures that the site is restored safely to its original state with minimal disruptions to others,” says Balint.
In the aftermath
As for the team, one can only image that witnessing these often horrific crime sites must take a toll, whether it’s in the form of anxiety, nightmares or post-traumatic stress. But, not so says Bruyere. “Those of us who do it were built for the job, and you become resistant to the sights and smells. The hardest part, though, is seeing the next of kin, especially after a sudden, unexpected or even violent death. Family members can often feel guilty on top of their grief, and witnessing that despair, well that never gets easy.”
For more information, visit www.firstonsite.ca