The Surfside building collapse may require a redefinition of “real-time” regarding rapid DNA

I’ve previously noted that the definition of “real-time” can vary depending upon the use case. In the automated fingerprint identification systems world of the late 1990s, a definition of “real-time” in minutes was appropriate, but for the computer aided dispatch world, “real-time” was (and is) measured in seconds.

“Hi, SCC folks, welcome to Printrak. You’re joining a company that sells REAL TIME AFIS that delivers results within one minute! Aren’t you impressed?”

“Hello, new corporate overlords. We provide computer aided dispatch systems that send police, fire, and medical personnel to crime scenes and emergency sites as soon as possible. If our CAD systems took AN ENTIRE MINUTE to dispatch personnel, PEOPLE WOULD DIE. We use really powerful computers to get personnel dispatched in a second. Enjoy your real time AFIS…amateurs.”

I also mentioned a two-hour “real-time” use case, which is (conservatively) the time it takes a rapid DNA instrument to do its work.

The rapid DNA vendors provide machines that can perform an automated DNA analysis in 90 minutes, a vast improvement over traditional DNA especially when existing backlogs are taken into account. And for the most part, 90 minutes is fine.

But the Surfside tragedy illustrates how 90 minutes may not be adequate.

There’s already been coverage of how rapid DNA can be, and is being, used to identify victims of the Surfside building collapse. NPR ran an article on this, and WFLA aired a news report.

To date I have not found a public source that lists how many rapid DNA machines are being used in the investigation, but let’s do a little math and see how many rapid DNA instruments could possibly be required.

Assume a conservative two hours is required to fully analyze each DNA sample and determine the possible identity of a deceased victim. Further assume that because of the importance of this case, the DNA instruments are being operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No going home at 5:00 pm in this case, which is receiving international attention.

Now let’s look at the numbers. As of 2:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time today, 20 deaths are confirmed, and 128 people are still unaccounted for.

What happens if there is a sudden horrific discovery of 100 deceased? How long would it take to identify all of them?

If 3 rapid DNA instruments are available, and each is processing 12 DNA samples in a 24 hour day, then it would take about three days to run all the samples through the DNA instruments.

Three very long days for the families of the potential victims who are waiting for news.

So the authorities may need to move to plan B.

The Indian River County Sheriff’s Office has been notified it might be asked to respond with the agency’s rapid DNA test machines to the deadly condominium collapse in Surfside, Sheriff Eric Flowers said….

“They put our folks on standby last weekend to respond if theirs got overwhelmed,” Flowers said. “At this point, they’ve not called for that, but our folks are ready and our machines are ready that if they call us we will respond to assist in DNA identification.”

Yes, in this case you can throw more machines at a problem to solve it, provided that you have the proper personnel to support them. Luckily, the rapid DNA instruments themselves do not need a forensic background to operate them, since they are designed to operate in an automated fashion. However, if rapid DNA analysis has an inconclusive result, then additional traditional DNA analysis will have to be performed which will require forensic expertise. (That, however, is outside of the scope of this post.)

By Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

So where do we stand after Surfside?

Previous rapid DNA identification efforts have just involved one person or less than a dozen people. But this case, in which potentially over 100 people may need to be identified, is truly pushing the limits of the technology.

(Come to think of it, it’s similar to how video analytic analysis was pushed to the limits by the Boston Marathon bombings. But I digress.)

And sadly, there have already been instances in which that many people, or more people, needed to be identified. Imagine, for example, the crash of a large airplane. Or worse still, the crash of two large airplanes into a skyscraper.

And now this 90 minute response time suddenly doesn’t seem so fast any more.


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