Your forensics team answers a call to a gruesome incident: stuffing flung everywhere, a piece of yarn tail at the bottom of the stairs, and two lone button eyes that catch the glare of the flashlight. And are those bits of suspicious green plant material?
Okay, you don’t respond to calls for disemboweled cat toys. (And it’s apparent Beaker perpetrated this “murder.”) But complicated cases requiring the input of multiple disciplines come into your lab every day. A dynamic LIMS is the key to handling everyone’s needs. Without one, you can end up chasing your tail, much like Beaker when he gets into too much catnip.
LIMS and Forensic Labs
Forensic science has always encompassed a variety of disciplines. And while everyone shares a common goal, processes differ, sometimes widely. The examiner who initially reports to the scene utilizes different forms and methods than the forensic entomologist studying larvae on a recovered body. However, it doesn’t mean a single lab employing both parties can’t work together; it just requires a system sophisticated enough to juggle everyone’s unique processes.
Unfortunately, workloads placed on such forensic labs have increased, and that demand has generated backlogs. This has in turn increased struggles to coordinate while also staying ahead of recent data (there are always new drugs out there). Cases pile up and confusion ensues over what tasks are complete, what needs collection, and what tests are pending (assuming, of course, the correct tests were ordered in the first place). Managing individual workflows—without creating redundancies or confusion— requires an adaptive system, one capable of working within everyone’s caseload while maintaining strict evidence control and data security. That’s where the laboratory information management system (LIMS) steps in.
In the past couple of decades, forensic labs have turned to LIMS to coordinate their efforts. A well-designed LIMS can take the individual components of a crime lab—medical examiner, pathologist, toxicologist, forensic anthropologist, etc.—and combine their processes into one, without losing anyone in the mix. No wonder the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the DEA’s National Forensic Laboratory Information System (NFLIS) have documented overwhelming use of a LIMS among forensic labs. (We’re talking over 80 percent!)
Building a Better Forensic LIMS
Ask members of a forensic lab to list their requirements for the ideal LIMS, and you’ll notice overlapping answers. That’s because a standard forensic LIMS fundamentally addresses:
- Sample, test, and case management
- Quality, security, and compliance regulations
- Daily operations and report generation
However, the LIMS must address more than that, given the nature of forensic science. This requires a fully configurable solution. The best LIMS—such as the one offered by LabLynx—allows for complete configuration to meet an individual lab’s needs. So sit down, consider a day (or week or month) in your lab’s daily operations, and jot down notes on everyone’s particular needs. The list may get long, but a worthwhile LIMS can handle everything.
Samples, Tests, and Cases, Oh My!
How many objects go into one case? (Yes, count every lab sample and logged piece of evidence.) Now, how many people work on a case at any given time? (Ask this whether you send out testing or work in-house; also consider your chain of custody.) Finally, how often does your lab scramble to track down a test result or witness’ contact information?
Case management is (arguably) the most crucial part of a forensic LIMS. No one wants to make 23 phone calls or send 17 emails to figure out details. It’s much easier to look at one dashboard that provides the same information, regardless of how many team members are involved with the case. For example, with the assistance of a cloud server, responding investigators can pull up a call sheet on a tablet. This means there’s no need for paperwork or scribbled notes requiring transcription down the road (nor fishing out documents from the Pit of Despair between the car seat and the center console). Ideally, that dashboard can be customized to suit your lab’s needs for any situation, including:
- Mass casualties (complete with mapping tools)
- Cluster crimes (linking decedents for related cases)
- Geolocation (down to latitude and longitude)
And what happens when you don’t have details? A proper LIMS allows you to save the file and come back to it when the information is available. Once the case number is generated, everything is ready for the team to access at any point. Additionally, no one needs to duplicate crucial information. The LIMS helps with this by automatically making data available from one tab to the next. As such, you never have to worry about mistyped names or numbers.
Once a case arrives at your lab, it’s time for a LIMS to pull its organizational weight. You have bodies, evidence, and samples to tag, log, and move. Tracking all this requires support for QR codes, barcodes, and case number-linked labels. Simply decide how much detail you want, and a single button can generate every label needed. Then all your lab needs is a scanner (and witness) to move evidence, bodies, and samples from one location to another. With one glance, you know the date, time, and person responsible for moving that X-Box console out of storage.
And whether you run testing in-house or work with an outside lab, a LIMS helps you coordinate samples in much the same way. Along with your labels (linked to the case number), templates let you know the number and type of samples and containers team members need to obtain.
The ideal forensics LIMS helps in other ways too. In-house, you can watch instruments batch-process testing. Outside the lab, a LIMS can then alert you when results arrive. (No need to scramble through piles of paperwork or sort through the 24,000 unread messages in your inbox.) Best of all, a LIMS allows complete control over case assignments. Administrators set up the entire team for each incoming case. This allows an equal workload across your staff (and prevents fighting for those celebrity murders). Everyone accesses color-coded priority flags or alerts on their dashboard, linking to pending due dates for easy comprehension and timely triage in an otherwise chaotic environment. And this is just the tip of the investigation iceberg!
It’s All about Quality (and Compliance)
A forensic lab can fire on all cylinders, but it still falters if it fails to meet compliance or quality control standards. A reputable LIMS doesn’t just help you keep caseloads running smoothly; it also better ensures your lab meets regulations. You want a system that will ensure every report leaving your lab meets the standards of the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) and the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners (IAC&ME). That means downloading regular updates so you don’t miss changes in accreditation requirements, without interfering with heftier regulatory tasks on your plate like managing security compliance.
This isn’t Men in Black, where anyone can stroll into the medical examiner’s office (flashy thing in hand or not). You put investigators in the field, and that requires a system with data encryption, secure communication protocols, and an ability to restrict the IP addresses staff use for work. (Of course, no one should be able to access the system without a secure password.) Your security protocols state that nothing leaves your lab without double, triple, or even quadruple checking, and a forensic LIMS should help that process. Ideally, a built-in tracking tool like an audit trail helps establish a chain of custody for samples, evidence, and bodies, creating an unbroken record of custody.
You also want to set how many reviews each case or test requires before release. User role assignments allow authorized staff to know when they’re due to review tests or reports. (Remember, they also can receive alerts within the system.) A LIMS can ensure only one person can access a case at a time, preventing duplication of work.
Finally, once you have the system running smoothly, you need to keep it that way. This usually involves training on not only lab policies but also system use. Employees need to remain current on that training too. A LIMS should allow an administrator to send an alert and completion deadline to users who need to review changed training documents and complete required training procedures. The system should even “lock out” anyone who fails to meet their training by your imposed time limit. The trusty forensic LIMS coordinates all this magic and more behind the scenes while your lab remains more secure and compliant.
Forensic Lab Operations and LIMS
Off the top of your head, how many forms does your team use across how many different software programs? (Admit it, there’s an electric typewriter somewhere in the office for at least one of them.) A quality LIMS can replace many of those redundant forms and programs, saving your lab time and making it more efficient.
For example, what if you no longer needed to field phone calls from law offices or next of kin looking for documents? With the ideal forensics LIMS, you get the bonus of an online portal. Instead of sorting through annoying voicemails, team members can receive a digitized request for documents, including death certificates, medical examiner reports, cremation authorizations, and body releases. Someone can then review the requesting individual’s credentials, select customized or industry-specific forms, and send the documents through the portal. (Better yet, with clearly defined roles, some of this can be automated.) It’s a secure, easy way to handle a task that often slows operations in the lab.
But the ideal forensics LIMS shouldn’t stop there. You want the ability to coordinate with the remainder of your lab, keeping track of your team’s instruments. LIMS users can follow batched lab samples (courtesy of the tracking feature) and calibrate and track maintenance needs. With inventory management features, you never run low on reagents. And with investigators in the field, you also need a way to track travel expenses. A LIMS that is able to log everything from working hours to mileage and meals is a time-saver. It means no more team members dropping piles of receipts on your desk.
The LabLynx Ideal Forensic Lab LIMS
LabLynx places the design and configuration of the ideal forensics LIMS into your lab’s hands. Want to attach crime scene photographs to a case? Images are uploaded to an internal server, ready for easy download. You can even bring radiographs over, converting DICOM images to JPEGs for accessibility. Are you looking to use Common Access Cards (CAC) for your logins? Our LIMS can do that. Single sign-on protocols are easy to build in for your security needs. And our LIMS is browser agnostic, making it adaptable to everyone’s current set-up.
Case management features are also vital, and our LIMS can help minimize backlogs, allowing everyone’s workflow greater breathing room. From pathologists, histologists, and neuropathologists to toxicologists, anthropologists, and entomologists, the members of your forensics lab or medical examiner’s office can benefit. It beats time lost yelling at computer screens or digging through piles of coffee-stained paper.
So why not schedule your consultation with LabLynx? Your lab has nothing to lose, except a backlog of cases!
Bollinger, K., Salyards, J., Satcher, R., et al. August 2020. “A landscape study of laboratory information management systems (LIMS) for forensic crime laboratories.” Forensic Technology Center of Excellence, National Institute of Justice, Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences.
Durose, M.R., Burch, A.M., Walsh, K.A., Tiry, E. November 2016. “Publicly funded forensic crime laboratories: Resources and services, 2014.” Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Durose, M.R., Walsh, K.A., Burch, A.M. August 2012. “Census of publicly funded forensic crime laboratories.” Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Levy, Bruce P. March 2013. “Implementation and user satisfaction with forensic laboratory information systems in death investigation offices.” American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology. 34(1): 63-67.
McCartney, Carole. January 2015. “Forensic data exchange ensuring integrity.” Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences. 47(1): 36-48.
National Forensic Laboratory Information System. October 2019. “NFLIS-Drug 2019 Survey of Crime Laboratory Drug Chemistry Sections Report.” U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
National Institute of Justice. December 2019. “Report to Congress: Needs Assessment of Forensic Laboratories and Medical Examiner/Coroner Offices.” Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice.
Office of Legal Policy. November 2021. “Forensic Science. “ U.S. Department of Justice.