Who cleans up a crime scene?
A fascination with crime scene TV shows led Indianapolis resident Meredith Sharp down an unusual career path.
“I was with my best friend and we were watching a forensic files type show on TV," Sharp recalls. "The crime scene we were looking at was particularly gruesome. She said, ‘Who do you think cleans that up?’ And I said, 'Well, I don’t know but I bet we could.'”
The next day, Sharp contacted Ball State University and asked if they had a forensics program. They didn’t, but offered to create an individualized program for her. She graduated in 2007 with a degree in criminal justice and concentrations in biology, chemistry and Spanish. Two years later, Sharp and her husband, Matt, opened Sharp Bioclean LLC, a company specializing in the safe removal of biohazardous waste, often from the scene of a crime or accident. The company is part of the biohazard remediation industry which emerged in the past few decades as a result of the HIV epidemic and increased awareness of the dangers presented by blood and other biological remains.
Just a routine day at work
After an accident or death occurs and the dead or injured have been taken away, it’s often companies like Sharp Bioclean that are brought in to clean up the mess. Sometimes the call is to the home of a person who died alone and whose body wasn't found for weeks. They deal with blood, human decomposition, excrement and any other type of biological hazard. The Sharps run the business out of their home on the north side of Indianapolis. Meredith and Matt are the owners, but they also work along their cleaning technicians Joe Davis and Tyler Sharp, who is also Matt’s cousin.
“Ultimately, our job is to disinfect and remove the affected area,” Matt says. “It’s not sanitizing, and we don’t come in as janitors or maids. We go in and take care of what needs to be taken care of.”
Their objective is to remove all contaminated material from a home, business or automobile and restore it to a biologically safe state. They show up to a scene, assess the extent of the cleaning and then compose a plan of action.
“You’re thinking in layers when you’re working with biological matter,” Matt says. “You disinfect and clean biological waste, and then move on to the carpet. You might cut the stain out and then you get to the padding and realize the damage beneath is extensive."
The Sharps use a variety of tools on the job. The main cleaning product they use is called RelyOn, a powerful disinfectant made by chemical manufacturer DuPont that kills 99 percent of all blood-borne pathogens, HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis, bird flu and H1N1. To kill spores, they use germicidal bleach. To locate traces of blood splatter, they use a spray-on indicator that fizzes when it comes into contact with blood. To contain blood splatter on a wall, they clean and seal it with a protective paint barrier.
"Once we get all of our biowaste together, we put everything in a black trash bag, which goes in a red biohazard bag, and then a plastic crate that has to be sealed,” Matt says. “Then, a biohazard disposal company comes and picks it up. We get the crates back after they disinfect them.”
The Sharps wear disposable, protective suits for all jobs, and respirators when they have to remove animal infestations or clean areas where diseases might be present. “The smells really don’t bother us,” Meredith says. “We’re more concerned with inhaling diseases.”
Learning how to clean a crime scene
To get started in this line of work, the Sharps had to obtain the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response certification from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which required a 40-hour course on the safe removal and disposal of hazardous waste, the use of power tools and how to work in confined spaces.
“We also took a week-long class with an instructor where we actually cleaned a mock crime scene made with cows’ blood,” Meredith says. “That was how we learned how to deconstruct furniture and how to pull a toilet if we needed to - all the stuff you wouldn’t really think about until you get to a crime scene.”
Demolition is a big part of the job, and Matt jokes that he never knew he was good with power tools before he started cleaning up blood. The Sharps often have to break down furniture or remove sections of flooring that have come in contact with biological waste. Ultimately, their goal isn’t to repair the contaminated area, but to ensure that it’s safe for others to enter, which might involve placing plywood over sections of flooring that have been removed.
Every job the Sharps take poses a unique set of challenges and they often have to improvise on the scene to complete their objective.
During what they call one of their most challenging jobs, the Sharps were responsible for decontaminating a home where the resident’s death hadn’t been discovered for several weeks. To remove the residue of decomposition, the Sharps began cutting away floor boards only to discover that five layers of flooring had been applied on top of each other through the home's history. As they worked, the contaminated area grew larger as the Sharps removed each layer. At the bottom of the fifth layer, they found a waste-filled dryer vent that also had to be removed.
“Every building is built a different way so you can’t really predict how it will be taken apart if it needs to be, or how things will be removed,” Tyler says.
Recalling the first day on the job
It took two weeks for the Sharps to receive their first call – a suicide at a home on the east side of Indianapolis,
“It happened so quickly,” Meredith says. “Before I knew it, I was going out to do the estimate. We took a look at the scene and they hired us on the spot.”
“It was stepping from theory into practice,” Matt adds.
The Sharps quickly found out that offering comfort to family members of the deceased is a big part of the job. “I try to describe what we do to people this way,” Meredith says. “I want to be the best thing that happens to them on the worst day of their life.”
Meredith says one difficult part of the job is when she has to talk business with a grieving family – sometimes just a few hours after a death. She explains to those families that many homeowners’ insurance policies cover the cost of clean up after a suicide or accidental death. “I always file on behalf of the homeowner for them so they don’t have to deal with it,” she says.
Tyler agrees, “Dealing with the people is a big part of the job. Even if it’s a property manager, he’s still having a really bad day. It’s good to have a sensitive approach.”
“Every job offers something new and challenging”
After two years in business, the Sharps say they’ve gained a wealth of experience. A majority of the calls they receive are to clean up after a suicide or accidental death, but they also get calls to clean up after fights, and to remove feces, rodents and odors. They are contacted by family members, property managers, insurance agents and coroners. In some jurisdictions, the coroner will provide relatives with a list of crime scene cleaning companies.
The Sharps tell one story where they were hired to clean up blood at a cell phone store in a mall after two women got into a fight, tearing each other's earrings out. The team cleaned the store in protective suits while curious shoppers snapped pictures through the store's windows.
One of their more difficult jobs involved removing 450 pounds of raccoon feces from the attic of an abandoned house. The home had been abandoned for 10 years and there were no working utilities. An attorney wanted to sell the house quickly so he hired the Sharps to come out in the middle of an ice storm. “There were holes in the steps - there were nails coming in from the roof so you couldn’t stand up straight in the attic,” Meredith says. “I had to work slumped over and it was freezing cold.”
Each job is unique for the Sharps, and they continue to learn new techniques along the way. “Every job offers something new and challenging,” Matt says. In a line of work where they never know what will happen on a day-to-day basis, they can never learn too much.
The Sharps understand that their business is not the type that people hope to ever use, but they want homeowners to know there is someone to call when tragedy strikes.
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