Forensic Science

As explained by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences:

“The word forensic comes from the Latin word forensis: public, to the forum or public discussion; argumentative, rhetorical, belonging to debate or discussion.”

“Forensic Science” relates to fact-finding through use of science and the scientific method, and the application of those facts to laws or in a court of law.

“The forensic sciences are used around the world to resolve civil disputes, to justly enforce criminal laws and government regulations, and to protect public health. Forensic scientists may be involved anytime an objective, scientific analysis is needed to find the truth and to seek justice in a legal proceeding. Early on, forensic science became identified with law enforcement and the prosecution of criminal cases—an image enhanced by books, television, and movies. This is misleading because forensic science is objective, unbiased, and applies equally to either side of any criminal, civil, or other legal matter.”

Sources:

  • American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS), What is Forensic Science, http://www.aafs.org/students/student-career/what-forensic-science Retrieved 1-30-16
  • Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), Census of Publicly Funded Forensic Crime Laboratories, 2009, dated August 2012. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cpffcl09.pdf Retrieved 1-30-16

Forensic Laboratory

A forensic laboratory is a common term for a facility where personnel process evidence using scientific methodology (in our situation, more often related to crimes and crime scenes). The Department of Justice often uses the term “forensic crime lab”, and the more traditional term was merely “crime lab”. Many organizations, laboratory directors, managers, and employees across the country now more correctly use the term "forensic laboratory" or "forensic lab".

The evidence processing and analysis typically seen in a forensic laboratory may include DNA, fingerprint processing and analysis, blood alcohol, blood drug, drug analysis (formerly generically referred to as "controlled substances"), firearms evidence analysis and comparison, and many other areas. Some agencies, such as the City of Henderson, include Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) personnel and a variety of other functions within the "forensic laboratory" umbrella.

Per the Department of Justice, “Forensic crime labs are a critical component of criminal investigations and the administration of justice. Publicly funded forensic crime labs examine and report on physical evidence in criminal matters for state, county, municipal, and federal jurisdictions, and also provide court testimony regarding that evidence. They receive requests for forensic services from a variety of agencies, including the police, medical examiners, prosecutors, and correctional facilities.


Forensic Science Center

Current functional areas to be expanded in the new Forensic Science Center:

  • Blood/alcohol analysis (toxicology) lab
  • Controlled substance and other unknown substance analysis lab
  • Fingerprint and Tenprint Section (analyze, compare, and identify prints) lab
  • Footwear and tire impression comparison lab
  • Training and Quality Management
  • Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) section, working areas, including a multiple-bay vehicle examination area

Functional areas to be added in the Forensic Science Center (requires additional equipment and staff):

  • DNA lab
  • Trace evidence/microscopy lab
  • Arson evidence analysis lab
  • Firearms evidence examination and comparison lab
  • Tool mark identification lab
  • Questioned document examination lab

To put it succinctly: It reduces our capability to solve crimes, prevent crime, and save lives.

Without sufficient forensic laboratory capacity and capability, not all potential evidence can be recovered, some evidence becomes unusable, many cases are not prosecuted, and numerous cases remain unsolved.

Forensic evidence processing and analysis capability and capacity throughout Southern Nevada is in a critical shortage.

This problem is accentuated by an area as large as the Las Vegas valley, and other parts of Southern Nevada, not having sufficient full service forensic evidence analysis capability.

It takes a lot of evidence processing work space, specialized equipment, laboratory facilities, office, and support areas to conduct the analysis and other associated actions correctly and in a timely manner.

Nevada's crime rates prove the critical need to expand forensic lab capacity in the state

A review of Nevada's crime statistics, as reported in the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, and the costs of crime provide an important picture of what happens as a direct result of our critical lack of forensic laboratory capacity and capability in Southern Nevada. Law Enforcement Officers as first responders and investigators have their hands full. Forensic labs often provide the only evidence available to prove facts of a crime. Forensic labs also serve as a huge "Force Multiplier" for pulic safety agencies; which helps solve crimes, prevent crime, and save lives.

For details on Nevada's poor crime rates and our high costs of crime, please refer to information provided via the "Crime Stats" navigation area at the top of the page.

No. Unfortunately we do not, and far from it. Forensic laboratory evidence analysis capability (type of services provided) is limited in various areas, and analysis capacity (amount of services that can be provided) is critically limited in Nevada, particularly Southern Nevada. The poor crime rates in Nevada, in relationship to the rest of the nation, demonstrate the impact of forensic laboratory capacity shortages.

Evidence backlogs are significant problems. As backlogs increase, many crimes go unsolved, crimes that may be otherwise prevented are not, and more persons become victims needlessly. Subjects who are wrongly accused may not be cleared of charges.

There are two fairly large forensic crime laboratories in Nevada. The Washoe County Sheriff's Office Forensic Laboratory (Reno) serves Northern Nevada. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) Forensic Laboratory serves a large portion of Southern Nevada. Both labs have huge backlogs in forensic evidence processing, and neither has sufficient space, manpower, or equipment required to process all of the evidence throughout the State.

The City of Henderson operates a small forensic laboratory that began operation in 2005 in a "temporary" facility. The forensic lab provides services in the areas of fingerprint comparison/identification, blood/alcohol analysis, blood/drug analysis, and drug analysis (previously referred to in general terms as "controlled substance" analysis). While Henderson's forensic analysis capabilities are impressive for a small lab, the capacity is critically low. There is no room to add personnel or equipment, and conditions frequently limit working multiple cases at the same time. Facility problems have forced a shutdown of various lab operations many times during the past few years. Temporary fixes keep the lab in operation but will not sustain long-term use.

LVMPD does not have the capacity to handle all of the services Henderson provides. Due to LVMPD's backlogs and lengthy turnaround time, Henderson's forensic lab conducts those analysis for Boulder City, Nevada; and other agencies in Nevada, occasionally, as resources allow. In two recent cases, a county district attorney's office in Northern Nevada asked the Henderson Forenic Lab to analyze evidence from two cases because the other two labs in Nevada could not complete the analysis in time for scheduled hearing dates.

In addition to increasing forensic laboratory evidence analysis capacity and capability in Southern Nevada, having a second full-service laboratory will provide important levels of backup in the case of laboratory equipment failure, potential contamination issues, facility problems, or other serious interruptions. It will also provide redundancy in the event of a sudden temporary need to provide emergency levels of forensic services, including support of homeland security needs.

The bottom line is: Yes.

The full laboratory planning, preliminary design concept and related drawings include sufficient spaces for a full-service DNA laboratory. Once we raise sufficient construction funds, if possible, we hope to assist the owning/operating public agency (government) with as much funding as is available to help ensure we can begin the critical tasks of solving rapes that have already occurred (sadly) and to help begin the process in southern Nevada to prevent many others and eventually wipe out the backlogs and maintain current analysis needs without substantial delays. This single issue alone is enough to warrant the funding and construction of a new forensic science center with the appropriate forensic laboratory spaces included.

For additional information regarding startup costs for the DNA lab (equipment and personnel), please refer to "How will the DNA lab be funded", under the "Project Costs" tab above.

Every Southern Nevada law enforcement organization, and the Clark County Coroner's Office, has huge backlogs of all types of potential DNA evidence. DNA evidence is often the key to solving and preventing many different types of crime.

One of the most widely known types of DNA evidence in backlog is rape kits. Southern Nevada does not have the necessary forensic laboratory resources to catch up and keep up with all of the potential evidence. The only thing that provides some relief, is grant funding such as the few million dollars in grants recently received by the State (as described below).

As of December 2015, DNA analysis needs for rape kits stored in evidence vaults in Southern Nevada were backlogged (untested) for more than 15 years.

Unfortunately, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) Forensic Laboratory is the only publicly operated forensic lab in Southern Nevada with the capability to conduct DNA evidence analysis. The only other publicly operated forensic laboratory in the region, a temporary facility operated by the City of Henderson, does not have the space, equipment, nor personnel to conduct DNA analysis. That, and similar issues, are major factors that help demonstrate the critical need to fund and build a second full-service forensic laboratory in Southern Nevada.

LVMPD's lab has worked for many years with significant backlogs, and continues their efforts to catch up, and eventually keep up. That possibility is in the distant future, at best, under the current situation. The lab has done everything possible within their current abilities, and has received numerous federal and other grants over many years to help keep the backlog of all DNA evidence analysis as low as possible.

Per the Associated Press, as reported in the Las Vegas Sun in May 2015, the LVMPD Forensic Lab had a backlog of approximately 5,613 rape kits, and 739 additional untested rape kits were in evidence vaults of eight other law enforcement agencies in Southern Nevada. In late 2015 LVMPD received approval of grants totaling $3.4 million to reduce the rape kit DNA backlog. In December 2015, LVMPD's lab director Kimberly Murga reported that if they receive full funding to test all backlogged rape kits, they could get each of them tested by 2020. LVMPD announced that they would be outsourcing the majority of the rape kits to a lab in Texas. Murga was also reported as saying that LVMPD's lab has the capacity to test 100 rape kits per year.

Source: Associated Press/Las Vegas Sun, "Nevada officials promise 6,300 stored rape kits will be tested", May 30, 2015 http://lasvegassun.com/news/2015/may/30/nevada-officials-promise-test-6300-stored-rape-kit/ Retrieved 1-30-16

Henderson Forensic Laboratory capability, capacity, and backlogs

Sections within the Henderson Forensic Laboratory have capabilities unmatched anywhere in the State of Nevada. Capacity must be increased and DNA analysis capability must be added to support our communities.

Henderson is unable to expand forensic evidence analysis capacity and capability due the small size and condition of the current laboratory building. The building was intended for use as a temporary facility in 2005, but funds have not been available to build a correct-size facility. The building has numerous electrical and other facility problems that are cost prohibitive to repair/replace, and the building cannot be expanded to meet current and future needs, which also limits its ability to help other agencies and communities in Southern Nevada.


Toxicology

The Henderson Forensic Lab Toxicology Section has the unique capability to complete blood alcohol evidence analysis from DUIs in approximately 3 to 4 weeks. If blood alcohol analysis results are below .084 percent (.08 percent plus a percentage to allow for statistical measurement uncertainty) the lab screens and confirms the blood for more than 75 different drugs, including some synthetic cathinones (bath salts).

This capability helps the criminal justice system identify persons who should no longer drive the roadways, preventing accidents and saving lives; as well as quickly exonerating drivers who have been suspected and charged for driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, but who had not violated the law.

Henderson's forensic lab was the first in Nevada to develop the ability to screen for and confirm Ambien (Zolpidem) in blood, confirming its presence and quantity in the blood of a driver suspected of causing a fatal traffic collision. The lab recently became the first publicly funded forensic laboratory in Nevada to confirm the presence and quantity of Methoxetamine, a designer drug, in blood. The lab is also the first (forensic lab) in Southern Nevada, perhaps the state, to develop the capability to confirm Ultram (tramadol) in blood. Ultram can cause death when combined with alcohol, or when otherwise used improperly.


Drug analysis (controlled substances, illicit drugs, botanical materials, etc.)

The Henderson Forensic Lab has a “handle it once” policy. It completes drug screening and laboratory confirmatory testing when it first receives the evidence. After the lab handles the evidence one time, there is no need for additional testing regardless of whether the case goes to trial or not.

In some forensic laboratories, pills and many types of capsules that are received for analysis merely undergo a physical examination of the size, shape, color and markings. Those features may be compared against reference sources such as the “Drug Identification Bible” or similar printed or electronic reference source. A laboratory report is produced for what equates to only a “preliminary” or “presumptive” test.

The Henderson Forensic Laboratory does not follow that procedure, but rather, conducts confirmatory analysis using a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer.

This is not only important from a “handle it once” policy or for industry best practices; more importantly, it is necessary for the sake of reliability and accuracy. Many illicit drugs are manufactured in a manner (disguised) to duplicate the physical size, shape, color, and markings of prescription medications, etc. The reference sources often used to examine such evidence in a criminal case are not accurate to any known degree of uncertainty.

The analysis backlog in the Henderson Forensic Laboratory can typically be measured in weeks or a few months, depending on the type of case and volume of evidence submitted. However, the capacity is limited due to the size and other limitations of the current temporary lab facility. Again, the small temporary facility prohibits expansion and increased capacity. Occasional facility problems also hamper operations.


International Forensic Laboratory Accreditation

In November 2015, the U.S. Attorney General directed Federal agencies to only use accredited forensic laboratories for evidence analysis in federal crimes by 2020. The Henderson Forensic Laboratory received its ISO/IEC 17025 Forensic Testing Laboratory Accreditation on October 14, 2016. The LVMPD forensic laboratory, as well as the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Forensic Laboratory in Reno, Nevada both received their international accreditation status in 2015.


Boulder City Forensic Evidence Analysis

Henderson's forensic laboratory does most of the DUI blood analysis (alcohol and other drugs), drug analysis (such as controlled substances and illicit drugs), fingerprint comparison, and footwear/tire impression analysis for Boulder City.


Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) Forensic Laboratory backlogs, capability, and capacity

As of February 2016, LVMPD's forensic lab apparently had a controlled substance analysis backlog of over 1,000 cases that extend one to two years or more. Unfortunately, that backlog is not for the completion of lengthy analysis and confirmation of a particular drug, but rather, for a simple laboratory presumptive test for drugs suitable for arraignment, pre-trial, etc. the Henderson Forensic Lab handles the drugs only one time, completing the drug screening and confirmation when it is first handles the evidence. The backlog can be measured in weeks or a few months, however, the capacity is limited to due the size and other limitations of the current temporary lab facility.

LVMPD's controlled substance backlog is approximately 1,500 cases that extends two years or more. Unfortunately, that backlog is not solely for the completion of analysis and confirmation of a particular drug, but rather, for a laboratory presumptive test for drugs (not confirmatory) presumed to be suitable for arraignment, pre-trial, etc.

If a trial is set after receiving results of the presumptive test, an additional analysis request is submitted to the LVMPD lab for confirmation analysis, causing further delays and adding to the backlogs.

Education is one of the core components of this project, without exception.

It is the opinion of NevadaCSI that government-operated forensic laboratories have a moral and ethical obligation to share knowledge, experience, and opportunities with the public that we serve.

Funding from this project will be granted to the prospective owner/operator of the Forensic Science Center (currently assumed to be the City of Henderson) only on the condition that a long-term cooperative agreement is completed and implemented with one or more local colleges/universities.

A $170,000 laboratory needs assessment and preliminary/conceptual design project funded by NevadaCSI, through the Henderson Community Foundation, was completed by the City of Henderson in December 2015.

Educational Partnerships

Nevada State College (NSC) expressed an interest in partnering with the City to explore the possibility of incorporating an educational component into the Center. Nevada State College, under the authority of the Board of Regents of the Nevada System of Higher Education, is developing a 509 acre campus adjacent to City property. Co-locating the Center on or near the campus presents a myriad of opportunities for the project, including the creation of a skilled workforce pipeline and the prospect of future growth.

Educational partnerships with one or more institutions of higher education will provide unique opportunities for future forensic science practitioners, increase their exposure to the use of natural (physical and life) sciences in forensic applications, to help guide students and graduates to potential careers in areas that will help others, increase opportunities for future employment, and encourage Nevada’s students to remain and work in our state.

Our future leaders will have additional opportunities for careers that will help solve crime, prevent crime, and save lives; careers that can help take criminals off of the streets and that can help exonerate innocent persons charged with crimes; careers that will also help their family members, friends, neighbors, businesses, and other members of their local communities to avoid being victims of crime.

As the Center begins operation, and through educational partnerships, increased opportunities for research in forensic science and scientific methodologies will also arise. Those opportunities will help the laboratory staff and its educational partners to learn and grow, and they will open doors for research grants. The development of the Forensic Science Center and the cooperative education partnerships will help solve crime, prevent crime, and save lives. It will help put southern Nevada “on the map” as a leader in forensic science in the western United States.

Much of the information above is provided in Project Overview - Educational Opportunities in the "Project Overview" navigation bar at the top of the page.

Until 2005, "centralization" of forensic evidence analysis was the only option in Southern Nevada because the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) had the only forensic laboratory. They were overwhelmed with backlogs then, and continue to have significant backlogs in forensic laboratory evidence processing and analysis.

We cannot afford any lapse in our capability to process forensic evidence, and we have to increase our capacity and add to our current capabilities. For example, the LVMPD Forensic Toxicology lab can screen, confirm, and quantify approximately 15 different drugs in blood. The temporary Henderson Forensic Laboratory can screen, confirm, and quantify over 70 different drugs in blood. That unique capability proved its worth in 2015 after a driver under the influence of a drug was involved in a vehicle crash that killed a young woman. The driver was not arrested at the scene, however, the blood voluntarily collected from the driver proved to contain a huge amount of a prescription drug Ambien (Zolpidem), a strong sedative-hypnotic drug. At that time, the Henderson Forensic Laboratory was the only publicly operated forensic lab in Nevada with the ability to screen for, confirm, and quantify (determine the amount of) Ambien in blood.

There are many reasons that laboratory centralization is not a viable alternative in Southern Nevada. Here are a few examples:

  • We need redundancy in many of the forensic science-related service capabilities. Any major event that might overwhelm a single laboratory could shut down all related and unrelated forensic analysis. With the current world events, we can't afford to "put all of our eggs in one basket", to borrow a worn out, but applicable, phrase.
  • Because LVMPD's laboratory is in a leased facility, the public has no control over future costs, no control over any needed expansion of their current facility, and no guarantee of sustained occupancy of the leased building; and the chance always exists that they may have to move to other facilities as they did when forced to in 2005 by their previous landlord over an apparent contract dispute.
  • The LVMPD has had backlogs as far back as memory serves. There is no reasonable expectation that the backlog will be eliminated in the foreseeable future under the current circumstances. Their controlled substance lab, toxicology, and DNA labs are backlogged. Steps are underway to outsource much of that backlog to private labs outside of Nevada (after receiving several million dollars in grants). This is a good start, and will bring answers and justice to some... much of which is too late for the victims. However, this "band-aid fix" is very limited in scope and duration. Adding a few personnel, and with them all of their full caseload (which is not now being addressed to the extent necessary), would not do much to improve things. It would only further exacerbate LVMPD's longstanding laboratory problems.
  • “Centralization” within a single laboratory, for such a largely populated area as the Las Vegas Valley and southern Nevada, is not a reasonable option. It is an inefficient, ineffective, and incorrect procedure to follow under the current circumstances.
  • There is a limit to what functions can and should be centralized under one roof. Forensic evidence processing and analysis has proven to be a poor candidate for centralization in the Las Vegas valley.
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Approximately $29.5 million is needed for the construction of a 47,067 gross square foot (gsf) facility

That cost estimate is based on the operator/owner providing the land for the facility. The City of Henderson proposed and set aside a location for the project.
Nevada State College (NSC) subsequently partnered with NevadaCSI. NSC land includes 509 acres available for development and provides the best possible location in keeping with requirements of NevadaCSI to include an educational component in the Forensic Science Center.

An additional $3.8 million would be required to add a 7,279 gsf central evidence vault for long-term storage of evidence for the police department.

$170,000 startup funds provided to City of Henderson—
In 2014 and 2015, the City of Henderson received grants totaling $170,000 to help fund a new forensic laboratory. The funds, provided by NevadaCSI via the Henderson Community Foundation, were designated for the purpose of starting the planning and preliminary design of a new Forensic Science Center to include a Forensic Laboratory and Crime Scene Investigation evidence processing facility. A new evidence vault was also included.

In order to provide a realistic determination of our community safety needs; a crime lab architecture, engineering, planning, and design firm; as well as a local architectural firm; completed a Forensic Science Center Facility Needs Assessment. The purpose of the formal assessment, completed in September 2014, was to determine if in fact a new laboratory facility is needed; the purposes, internal space requirements, and overall size requirements of such a facility; and the expected costs.

Based on the established program/feasibility document, a separate forensic laboratory architecture, engineering, planning and design firm; and a second local architectural firm completed a conceptual design plan, which included conceptual site plan, preliminary building plans, sections, and elevations. The firms also validated the schedule and budget information from the first project. This project was completed in December 2015.

For planning, and design purposes, and to accommodate options based on funding availability, the project was divided into three numbered parts or phases. An additional education/training phase was subsequently added to the project due to the NevadaCSI requirement for the project to include a college/university educational partnership.

Phase 1 –

Design and build an approximately 22,187 gsf forensic laboratory facility that will adequately support current operations, and add the increased capacity to sustain operations through at least 2027. This is the core piece of a new forensic laboratory facility to include offices, labs, processing rooms, break room, mechanical/electrical plant (full buildout for phases 1-3), etc. Labs in this building include drug analysis (controlled substances/others), toxicology (blood alcohol and blood drug analysis), evidence accessioning, finger prints/ten prints, AFIS, evidence processing, and footwear & tire impression analysis. Lab equipment currently in use at the existing Henderson facility shall be relocated and reused in this new facility in addition to new equipment. Additional staffing and equipment will be needed over time, to keep up with a gradual increase in forensic evidence analysis case work. The cost projection for this phase, in 2016 dollars, is $15,004,445.

Phase 2 –

Build (with Phase 1) or expand the “new” laboratory facility by an additional 7,914 gsf (for a combined total of 30,101 gsf) to accommodate a full complement of approximately 42 lab personnel needed to support operations with forensic evidence analysis requirements projected through 2027. The additional spaces will allow an increase of capabilities from the existing laboratory functional areas, and add additional areas including DNA, trace evidence, and firearms evidence examination. With this added capacity and capability, new equipment will be needed. The current cost projection for this phase, in 2016 dollars, is $5,096,624.

Education/Training Phase –

This 6,450 gsf phase includes a 120 seat divisible lecture/training hall, two training/teaching labs, one divisible training/teaching evidence analysis/processing room, material storage, related offices, restrooms, and mechanical / electrical / HVAC areas. This phase is a key component of the Forensic Science Center Project, and is a condition of granting funds to the eventual owner/operator. It may be constructed as a separate wing of the same structure as the operational forensic laboratory (preferred) or as a standalone adjacent building. Preliminary designs and conceptual drawings previously funded by NevadaCSI can be updated as necessary, when private funding is assured for this phase.

This phase will also provide emergency capabilities and some redundancy, in the event of an incident in the operational laboratory (e.g. as a major facility problem or evidence contamination issue) that requires operations to cease for a period of time.

Crime Scene Investigation Area –

Build an attached 10,516 gsf facility to accommodate the Crime Scene Analysis/Investigation (CSI) function and related staff, and provide a single location to process vehicles and other large and/or unique evidence recovered by CSI personnel.

The Crime Scene Facility Phase coincides with the updated Needs Assessment and Project Documents (schematic design level) prepared by PGAL/MWL on 12-31-15 and in conjunction with proposed Phases 1 & 2 of this project. This phase includes the addition of a Crime Scene Analysis/Investigation (CSI) facility to include vehicle processing bays, equipment storage areas, office workspaces, and locker rooms.

Note: Public funding that may be acquired by the prospective owning/operating agency may be used to complement the private funds received through this project.

The first priority of this project is to raise funds for the construction of the Forensic Science Center.

Once those funds are assured for the DNA lab construction, NevadaCSI will continue to solicit private funds to raise approximately $1.2 million for the purchase of forensic DNA laboratory instrumentation/equipment for DNA analysis, 3-year extended maintenance warranties, and consumables used for DNA analysis. Also, an additional $1.56 million to pay the salaries/benefits of three Forensic Scientists and one DNA Supervisor/Manager for the new DNA section for three years. The operating/owning agency (assumed to be Henderson) will be required to maintain the equipment and salaries after the 3-year period.

The success of this portion of the fundraising will help speed the process to begin testing sexual assault kits. As mentioned in other portions of this site, as of February 2016, approximately 6,300 untested rape kits were being stored, dating back more than 15 years. The rape kits include cases from Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City, City of Las Vegas, and Clark County.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) Forensic Lab is the only public forensic lab in Southern Nevada that can analyze these kits. Because of their overwhelming backlogs, they plan to outsource the kits to one or more private labs in other states, because they reportedly have the internal capacity to test only 100 kits annually. This situation must be corrected, and will be helped significantly when the Forensic Science Center, with Forensic DNA and other labs, is built, equipped, and staffed.

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