It’s hard to move through the cramped room. Statues, porcelain tea cups, and trinkets of all kinds cover every surface. The place looks like an antique shop that hasn’t been open in months. Sometime in the fall, the resident of this San Diego home died alone of natural causes. The body was not discovered until March. In a home filled with the result of years of amassing objects of all kinds, the job of cleaning up this scene falls on crime and trauma scene decontamination crews.
In the field, crews go into an area after there has been an incident that could render a place bio hazardous, not only to professionally clean the area, but to decontaminate it and return it to its previous state. Professional Crime Scene Cleaners are qualified to handle a level of dirty that most people will never have to encounter.
Ethan Phearson, 30, is president and co-owner of Cendecon, a crime scene clean up company that has been in service for eight years, serving Los Angeles and beyond.
“We specialize in crime scene cleanups, hording clean outs, gross filth decontamination,” Phearson said. “Pretty much anything nobody wants to do.”
Respiratory and other health problems can come from a hazardous environment, but when a violent death or suicide occurs, blood and other bodily fluids pose the greatest threat to these crews because of the potential for communicable disease.
“We’re dealing with biohazardous material, so of course there’s always a safety concern, but we have PPE, personal protective equipment,” Phearson said. “We have full body suits, respirators and masks, gloves, goggles, the whole nine.”
These kinds of suits are standard practice for those working with possible biohazardous or chemical substances, according to Beth Benne, director of the Student Health Center at Pierce College.
“The PPE has really come into its own. Hospitals now have them,” Benne said. “But it’s something that has to be taught, how to properly put the equipment on and take it off in the appropriate manner so that we don’t accidently contaminate ourselves after a decontaminating event.”
Benne said that after the job is done the potential danger for the crew to contaminate themselves is greater when they remove the equipment. Improper protocol of removing PPE was responsible for the Ebola contamination of two nurses treating a patient in Texas in October of 2014.
“This is where the breakdown occurred in Texas. The training of the users was not adequate. They were not appropriately trained on how to disrobe,” Benne said. “Communicable diseases are fascinating because there are so many different types. It really makes an impact. It effects everything. Everything comes to a screeching halt.”
Brandon Beban, 22, is an employee of Cendecon. Beban admittted the job is tough and could be risky depending on the particular assignment, but while the work may throw others off, he was prepared from the start.
“I knew what I was walking into,” Beban said. “My first job was a hoarder’s house. That took three days to clean out and there was lots of heavy lifting, but it was basically what I expected.”
Phearson and his crew will take jobs as they come and will travel anywhere from Fresno to San Diego, but mostly they service Bakersfield and Los Angeles County. Phearson said that similar jobs usally come grouped together within a short time of each other.
“Interestingly enough, types of jobs come in blocks. It’s really odd,” Phearson said. “One time we’ll get
like two or three suicides within a week or two, and then we’ll get a couple hoarding jobs and then we’ll get a couple decomps.”
A decomp is when there is an unattended death and decomposition of the body has begun. These kinds of assingments are the most difficult as there is a greater risk to come in contact with bodily fluids.
There is a delicate nature to the work to ensure that a scene is a sanitary environment after the work is done, but another part of the job for Phearson and his crew that doesn’t require powerful cleaning agents or protective equipment can be just as delicate and tough to navigate.
After eight years of working in the CTS decon field, Phearson has gotten used to the sights and smells, but something that doesn’t get easier with time that is the part of his job where he is dealing with the families of the victims.
“The police departments and the sheriff’s departments are not legally allowed to refer a specific company, so usually it’s the family that contacts us or a friend or neighbor,” Phearson said. “It’s all usually a pretty sad situation. Whether it’s a hoarder or a death, it’s sad no matter how you look at it.”
“It really depends on how the person is handling it,” Phearson said. “Everybody handles grief differently. Some people are making jokes about the person who died. Sometimes they’re very quiet and they just point us in the right direction. We just react depending on what their mood is.”
As of the early 2000’s there weren’t many established CTS decon companies, so the burden of cleaning up after a violent or unexpected death was the responsibility of the family.
Nancy, who asked her last name not be published, came to California from Buffalo, New York, to help settle her brother-in-law’s arrangements. She felt overwhelmed and relied on Phearson’s comforting attitude and experience to get through what was new situation fo rher and her family.
“It’s not just the tangible, physical things that need to be done, but the emotional. I called Ethan and he answered right away and answered my questions and really gave us some piece of mind,” she said. “I see him here working, and he’s on the phone a lot and I think, that was me calling him all the time when he was on a job. They were so reassuring.”
These situations can leave more than just a physical stain. They can leave an emotional one on friends and family. Having to deal with grief is hard enough, but being able to trust that your home is safe and clean can go a long way to help move on.