It's dark in here, but I think I'm standing in a mountain cave.
My assignment? In a matter of timed minutes, I must search the cave for evidence of bombs or cell phones used to trigger IEDs, improvised explosive devices that have proved so dangerous to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In truth, I'm in a windowless Largo warehouse where one of this year's top workplaces — the National Forensic Science Technology Center — provides forensic training scenarios ranging from mock (but realistic) terrorist caves, car bomb investigation scenes and multiroom apartments in need of CSI-like examination.
Customers range from the Department of Defense, law enforcement officers, medical examiners and specialty forensics workers. They come to sharpen their investigative skills under demanding field conditions and learn how to use advanced technologies for DNA and substance analysis. On a recent visit, a U.S. Army Crime Lab crew was in training on ballistics comparisons. The warehouse, tucked behind NFSTC's offices, includes its own firing range.
The company even brings in role-players, supplied by a Clearwater firm, to play dead in certain training scenarios.
"We've spent 14 years flying under the radar," said NFSTC chief executive Kevin Lothridge. Now he wants the 58-employee organization and its unusual mandate to bask a bit in the spotlight. From a staff of one and just $1,500 in startup funds in 1995, the center recently was the recipient of $24 million in grants.
"Why do people like working here? Because our jobs make a difference," Lothridge said. A prime example is the NFSTC's involvement in NamUs: the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The free database serves as a relatively new tool for families of the missing. The system's made several matches recently, including reuniting a family with the remains of a body unidentified for more than 20 years.
All this at a business whose unofficial company mascot is Gumby: a salute to the need for everyone to be flexible.
Despite its title, which makes it sound like a federal agency, the nonprofit NFSTC depends heavily on government grants to fund the extensive range of training services it offers. Lothridge, 48, is well aware that the federal budget is going through rigorous cuts, so his management team remains highly focused on cost controls to allow many NFSTC training programs to remain free to state and local law enforcement.
One growth area Lothridge sees is bringing forensics training expertise to the increasingly turbulent southwest border with Mexico.
NFSTC uses a temp agency when hiring people. That way, the organization can test the employee's talent and compatibility without committing to the upfront expense of a full-time hire. One benefit of this hiring method? A 92 percent employee retention rate.
"There's nothing worse than not wanting to come to work," Lothridge said.
Especially when there are so many investigators to train and so many crimes to solve.