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Picking Up the Pieces

After a violent crime or bloody trauma, specialists must be called in to sanitize the scene.

November 01, 2004  |  by Neil Weiss


Trauma scene cleanup is not only a dirty job; it’s also a hazardous one.

Families who are unfortunate enough to have a loved one take his or her own life or fall victim to the homicidal urges of another human being inside their homes face many challenges. Not the least of these is what to do about the shredded flesh, brain matter, blood, and bone fragments that remain spattered across their walls and soaking into their carpets long after the body or bodies have been carried away.

The cleanup of the carnage left behind by a bloody crime or suicide requires more than a mop and some soapy water. Survivors of the victims are not only emotionally ill equipped to literally pick up the pieces of their loved ones, they lack the proper tools.

The same can also be said of most traditional cleaning services. Crime scene cleaning is a very specialized, dirty, and sometimes dangerous job.

Blood-borne pathogens like HIV, hepatitis in all its strains, and other infectious diseases can be real concerns. In addition, a crime scene can even contain toxic chemicals and other non-biological hazards. Consider a hostage scenario that involves SWAT officers shooting and killing a subject inside a building or home. Such an incident could leave behind bullets lodged in walls that constitute evidence as well as lead contamination. If the officers deployed gas, cleanup may also require neutralization of potentially dangerous chemicals.

And cleaning up the actual scene of the crime is really only part of the job. Disposal of affected material and cleaning gear is tricky, expensive, and time consuming. A crime scene cleaning team may be required to bag, remove, and properly dispose of drywall, insulation, flooring, and other building materials, along with the contaminated contents.

A Historical Perspective

There was a time, not so long ago, that the job of cleansing a house or building that was the site of a bloody trauma fell on the owners of the property who likely hired a traditional cleaning service.

Before OSHA began to establish standards for dealing with blood-borne pathogens and other hazardous materials in 1991, families hauled dumpsters to their front yards and tossed bloody sheets, carpets, and furniture into them for disposal at the local dump. And at apartment complexes, panicked landlords would call in the super to scrub up the massive stains, pick skull fragments out of the sheet rock, apply a little spackle, and try to make the unit look like it had never been the scene of violent death.

When the standards changed and costly training and equipment were required by law, there was suddenly a need for specialists to do the job. Under the new regs even coroners didn't have the stuff to handle the cleaning of bio wastes at crime scenes, and traditional cleaning services quickly decided that the protective gear, licenses, liability insurance premiums, disposal fees at special facilities, and hepatitis B inoculations for all employees made crime scene cleaning unprofitable. This must have left quite a few workers feeling relieved.

To fill the void, a small industry slowly began to develop. People accustomed to the horrific aftermath of crime scenes-firefighters, paramedics, forensic anthropologists, and cops-began to open specialized companies.

In 1996, there were fewer than a dozen companies offering crime scene cleaning services. Now there are hundreds. And each year, more companies enter the fray.

Some cleaners are in it for the money and some get in because they have the unique ability to stomach a job that most people wouldn't be able to perform for any amount of money. Still other companies have been started by people who wanted to help families who are coping with the violent deaths of their loved ones.

Such is the case with Crime Scene Clean-Up. The Aberdeen, Md.-based company was started in 1993 by Louise Burkhardt. At the time, Burkhardt, whose father had been the victim of a homicide, was operating a maid service and subcontracting with funeral homes as a transport service, when she began to get requests for cleaning up trauma scenes. She accepted a job that she admits most people can't even talk about.

"I can't imagine that anyone grows up wanting to do this for a living," says Burkhardt, whose family has also suffered two suicides. "But I get a lot of satisfaction helping people who need this kind of assistance."

Blood Money

Of course, there are other rewards as well.

Crime scene cleaning can be lucrative, but it's also a business with high overhead. And crime scene cleaners work very hard under often hellish conditions.

The bottom line is that the services of a company like Crime Scene Clean-Up are costly, ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Cleanups can take a couple hours or several days or more, and cleaning companies charge accordingly.

Fortunately, most survivors get some help paying. The cost is often covered by home owner's insurance. And in some states crime victim compensation programs often pay costs that are not covered by insurance.

Some companies also do whatever they can to lessen the blow to a family's finances. According to Burkhardt, Crime Scene Clean-Up works with the families of all victims, regardless of their economic status. Under special circumstances, the company has even done jobs for free when no money could be found to pay for the service.

Tags: homicides, Meth Labs


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