Construction of Oregon’s newest crime lab in Pendleton is six weeks away from completion.

The facility exceeds 9,500 square feet at the bottom of Airport Hill in what is effectively the county’s law enforcement center, with the entrance to the Pendleton Police Department and the Oregon State Police Pendleton Area Command just up Airport Road, and the sheriff’s office, jail and parole and probation department within a moment’s drive the other way.

The state police Forensic Services Division operates labs in Bend, Central Point, Pendleton, Portland and Springfield. For years the agency and Oregon Legislature debated about closing the Pendleton lab in the office building at the corner of Southeast Eighth Street and Emigrant Avenue. The analysts there work in tight spaces, contend with shrinking storage and even a gnat infestation. Calvin Davis, the forensic scientist in charge of the Pendleton lab, said a central issue is the building was not designed for the work.

That soon will no longer matter. Davis during a tour of the site Wednesday said, “It will be a substantial upgrade for us for sure.”

Portland-based Fortis Construction Inc. is building the $4.5 million lab and broke ground in August. Project superintendent Tim Miner said about 30 people a day are working at the site. Contractors measured, drilled and hammered around the place, working on everything from cabinets to door frames to lighting.

“It’s a busy place,” Miner said.

The building’s west side houses the main entrance, the front lobby, a conference room, office spaces and a high-density file storage room. Project engineer Jacob Gerard explained the reception staff will control the secure entrance with a video system to see and talk to anyone wanting in and the front glass is bullet resistant.

The east side of the building houses the labs and the new vehicle bay.

The general lab area provides five work stations, there is a separate area for fingerprint collection, and another for chemical analysis for controlled substances. Davis also pointed out two side-by-side rooms for screening large items, such as bedding. He said that’s a boon because staff can work on material from a suspect and a victim at the same time in separate spaces.

Work is nearing completion on the vehicle bay, also on the east end. The bay has a hydraulic lift to allow work under vehicles. Davis said the bay is a significant addition and when not in use will double as storage for the crime scene van. The bay leads to the room for firing weapons into a ballistic water tank. Davis said that’s a better place to shoot a gun than the general lab area.

Staff have to pass through a “bio-vestibule” to get from one side of the building to the other. Gerard said that serves as a “clean room space” to protect the labs against contamination.

A trailer-sized air exchange unit outside the building also helps keep the lab clean, and a natural gas generator provides backup power to the building. In the off chance electricity goes down and the gas does not flow, the generator works off two large exterior propane tanks. In essence, the backup has its own backup.

“The goal is to never, ever lose power here,” Gerard said.

He also said the lab requires “a crazy amount of equipment” and ensuring the myriad connections were right the first time meant plenty of planning and coordination with state police prior to installing anything. Miner said that work is reaping rewards.

Davis said the larger and better footprint allows for staff expansion, should that ever occur. But the new lab is not adding forensic disciplines, such as DNA analysis and comparison. The forensic division handles all DNA extraction and comparison at its lab in Clackamas. Likewise, toxicology work remains there and at the Springfield lab.

Gerard said May 1 is the construction end date. Davis said he and the rest of the staff won’t move in for a few weeks after, but they are thrilled about the new digs.

On a practical note, he said, he had to take some measurements in the building to see if the furniture they will bring in the move is going to fit.

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