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Advice from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences on implementing a system.

You don’t see Hollywood glamorize the quality management staff of forensic laboratories on CSI or Bones. Admittedly, ensuring processes and procedures are followed and maintaining your lab’s accreditation is not the sexiest visual for a television audience, but in the world of forensics, quality and consistency are the name of the game.

Just ask Faron Brewer, quality manager for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. He’s been with the department for 22 years and knows a thing or two about quality assurance and its history in the field. When Brewer began his career, computers were a rarity. How computers would impact the quality field was only a glimmer.
“I’ve seen great advances in quality assurance and accreditation of forensic laboratories over the years,” says the affable Brewer, who stressed just how much things had changed since his early days in the field. “Standard operating procedures were much easier for us to keep updated after computers were introduced.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the first few computers in the Alabama forensic labs served to connect a network of facilities across the state and help them coordinate and collaborate. But it wasn’t until 2003, when the department implemented a lab information management system, that processes really began to hum. That year the department was accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB).

“Prior to that point, almost everything we did was manual—printing documents, checking, marking them up, filing them in folders,” recalls Brewer. “It took a lot of time.”

Of course, the labs’ reliance on technology has only increased since then, and in his position overseeing quality in a lab system that employs about 200 staff in eight facilities, Brewer sees buy-in at all levels when technology can improve process or procedure. That’s why in 2010 he and his team began to investigate document management systems.

“My peers in the Association of Forensic Quality Assurance Managers gave me a glimpse of what other labs were doing,” explains Brewer. “Some of the labs I spoke with were small, but all of them saw marked improvement in their processes with a document management system in place. I figured if it worked for them, it would work for us.”

And it has.

Brewer and his colleagues asked their peers for recommendations on software providers and ultimately chose Qualtrax as their document management solution. It had the functionality they needed and was easy to understand and implement.

He admits implementing a document management solution seemed a little overwhelming at the time.

“Knowing exactly what we wanted was essential,” offers Brewer, “but a solid implementation plan up front was critical as well.”

The document management system that has been in place since July 2010 is constantly being tweaked to improve performance and adjust to changes in the labs’ processes. All professional staff in the lab use the system in one way or another.

Brewer and his department are using the system to its fullest potential. In addition to managing documents, Brewer and Assistant Quality Manager Holli Baker have created and customized workflows, provided training to staff, and tested the staff on specific skills. They manage reviews of scientific literature to ensure that the appropriate professionals see it. The quality management team also takes advantage of the custom reporting function that enables them to generate specific reports for the workflows or training offerings.

“Holli and I spend a fraction of the time we used to on managing our documents,” says Brewer.

Brewer, who is known in industry circles for helping out his colleagues, has a few bits of advice for those considering implementing such a system:

  1. Decide what you want the system to do. Spend time up front researching exactly what you want your system to do. Do your requirements gathering, in other words. And try to anticipate your needs as your department and its processes evolve.
  2. Develop a step-by-step plan. Just as with any project, a step-by-step plan will be your road map. It will help your team members stay on the path and it will help you reach your goals in a timely fashion. Know that, depending on the size of your organization, the implementation process can take some time. It’s worth stepping along slowly to get it right. Don’t try to do everything at once. Start with document control first. As you get comfortable with that function, begin working on workflows, testing and training, reports, and so on.
  3. Realize that continuous tweaks will be necessary. Your processes will evolve and improve and the system will need to be tweaked to match your improvements and changes in staff and organizational requirements. Know this up front and make sure that the system you select is flexible enough to handle the changes.
  4. Structure the software around your management system. Accreditation bodies require forensic laboratories to have a structured management system. These are often similar, but most are unique. It is crucial for your documents and workflows to correspond to your particular management system. This takes planning and coordination between staff and the personnel who manage the compliance software. Make the system work for you.
  5. Spend time on training. Change is difficult no matter how beneficial the change may be. Spend time and effort training your staff on the new program and you will reap rewards from staff buy-in and participation. This is key to successful implementation of a compliance software system. Make sure your solution provider is as committed to training and constant education as you are.

Brewer extolled the value of working with his peers. Soon after the lab began implementing the document management software, he along with a few other users developed a group e-mail list in order to share knowledge and improve the system. The result was a group of quality managers sharing best practices and offering solutions to each other.

“This field has evolved so much over the past two decades,” says Brewer. “Who knows what the future will bring.”

Hollywood producers haven’t phoned Brewer just yet, but who knows when they’ll find out how glamorous quality management really is.

Category: Forensic Labs