They’ve got a field. Some rubble. And, drones, too.
They even have dogs.
Florida’s Forensic Institute for Research, Security & Tactics, or F1RST, features several aspects in its multidisciplinary research institute, which operates under the Pasco Sheriff’s Department.
The state-of-the-art training facilities represents a collaboration and partnership between academia, practitioners and the private sector — creating the opportunity to discover and provide innovative, cutting-edge techniques.
“A lot of the research questions we have are ones that come up in the field,” F1RST Forensic Science Administrator Austin Polonitza said. “We rely on that academia aspect on figuring out how to answer those questions. We want to fill in the gaps in the knowledge associated with the seven core disciplines.”
F1RST’s seven core disciplines are Forensic Science; Tactics and Human Performance; Public Safety K-9s; Intelligence Studies; Cybersecurity; Unmanned Systems (Drones); and Leadership.
F1RST has various training facilities, both indoor and outdoor.
The Helen A. Rich K-9 Training and Research Campus is in Land O’ Lakes. It allows housing for the dogs, but also every training scenario for the nearly 40 K-9 officers in the sheriff’s department.
There also are two FEMA-certified rubble piles that are used for mock training for search and rescue with both the K-9s and the fire and rescue department.
“This is what we call ‘engineered chaos,’” Polonitza said, with an obvious measure of pride.
Then, there is F1RST Field.
This 11-acre field, which went up in December 2020, houses three different types of environments and can be used for training, for instance, in finding human remains or investigating crime scenes.
Thanks to the Anatomical Gift Program through Florida Gulf Coast University — one of F1RST’s academic partners — and its Human Identity and Trauma Analysis Program, the field can have actual human remains used to create certain scenarios. This allows Human Remains Detection K-9s to practice searching for “a body” and also allows technicians to try different forensics techniques in varying environments, especially those of harsh Florida wetlands.
“The field really simulates and mimics what you’ll encounter in the actual field in Florida,” Polonitza said. “There are no scenarios out there — nothing else like this area because the environment in Florida is so different, dense and moist.”
The field also is a great training location for the Unmanned Systems portion of F1RST, or the drone operators. Those remote-control pilots are able to use drones that have thermal imaging to locate missing people, as well as multispectral imaging to identify gravesites.
“We used thermal imaging to find a missing kayaker on the Withlacoochee River,” Pasco County Sgt. and Drone Operator Tony Hallaian said, noting the kayaker was found in 5 minutes.
“In 10 years, (drones will) probably all be automated, but I guess that’s part of the whole program here: how do we make it better?” he said.
As part of the drone research, each device sends feedback for analysis, such as how to improve imaging or battery life. The drone patrol also is integral in hostage situations, as it can send in a drone to assess the situation before the SWAT team enters.
“That saves lives right there,” Hallaian added.
F1RST relies heavily on sharing its academic finds, as it has no limits on how many institutes or university programs it partners with (Florida International University’s Global Forensics and Justice Center is one of dozens of partnerships).
F1RST also has an outreach program to educate the youth — those who might be interested in forensics and the other core disciplines.
“We do have forensics camps,” Polonitza said. “High school students have shown interest in learning the aspects of forensics as possible careers. We’re all about empowering those with the knowledge we learn right here at F1RST.”
To learn more about F1RST, its Anatomical Gift Donation Program and its upcoming training courses, visit FloridaFirstTraining.org.
Published June 15, 2022