New tool speeds up crash investigations

By TERRY CORCORAN
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: July 22, 2004)

KENT — As a veteran member of the Putnam County fire police, John Bodor has seen the frustration of motorists who are forced to wait at accidents while police spend hours taking measurements.

"The most difficult thing is when people see the fire department standing around, waiting in case the car catches fire or leaks fuel. The fire police are still detouring cars after the ambulance has left and the average person is thinking, 'Why are they keeping the road closed?'

"We're doing that because, in the case of a serious accident, police have to take measurements and document everything for legal purposes. It always takes a lot of time to do that," said Bodor, president of the Putnam-Northern Westchester Fire Police Association.

But a device called the Total Station that Kent police recently acquired through a grant allows them to take measurements accurate to within 1/100th of an inch in less than half the time it takes with a tape measure. The Total Station, which was designed for surveyors, will allow police to open roads a lot quicker after serious crashes, said Kent police Lt. Alex DiVernieri.

"We used to go to a scene and have to shut down the road while we took tape measurements. We'd be looking at hours at a time. Now it can be done in an hour or less," DiVernieri said.

The device, by the Trimble Co. in California, has a computer that shoots a laser beam at the object being measured. If the object is a spot on the ground, a device like a target is held above the spot being measured.

Software computes the height, distance and grade of the point in minutes. The laser can also be directed at locations like the top of a telephone pole to tell how high it stands and how far it is from the point being measured.

The equipment was purchased with a $9,700 grant from the STOP-DWI program through the Putnam District Attorney's Office.

"It can also be used for any crime scene, including a shooting," DiVernieri said. "It can be used in all weather situations — wind, snow and rain do not affect it."

"It's invaluable in terms of the time it will save us," said Sgt. James Oster, an accident reconstruction expert and one of three department members certified to use the new equipment. "We used to have to run a tape measure the entire length of an accident scene, then use other tape measures off that to determine distances and points of impact. This gives us the exact measurement in minutes as opposed to two hours or more."

"With the old method, we had to document each point by hand," said Detective Gerald Locascio. "With this, it's all done with the push of a button. It takes about 20 minutes to set it up, then we get measurements in minutes."

The measurements made with the Total Station following a July 15 fatal accident on Route 301 took less than an hour, though the road remained closed some five hours because it involved a hazardous material spill.

Trimble developed the Total Station about 15 years ago with Nikon, according to Kent Hutson, who sells the devices and said they are used by the FBI and New York City police.

"Someone — it wasn't us — came up with the idea to use it for doing all types of measurements in police work," Hutson said. "From there, software was developed and it's been at least 12 years that I know of that it's been used in police work."

The Putnam County Sheriff's Office has similar equipment, as do state police.

"Before we had the total station, we'd lay down a tape measure, then measure off that at 90-degree angles. That could take anywhere from two to 12 hours, depending how serious the accident was," Sheriff's Sgt. Tim Gannon said. "After that, we'd go back to the station and draw (the scene) out by hand using templates, which could take several more hours.

"With the Total Station, we set it up in 10 minutes, shoot the accident scene, download the information and have everything done in anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours."

"We have used Total Stations since 1998 and have helped over a dozen police agencies obtain their own Total Stations and provided them free training," said Sgt. Daniel Bates, reconstruction-unit supervisor for the state police. "They save us an incredible amount of time. Plus an unintended second result is that we're partnering with other agencies we didn't normally work with."

Meanwhile, accidents will continue to happen and authorities will continue to close roads, although perhaps for not as long.

"Anything that would expedite opening a road is great," said Bodor of the fire police. "But I also think that people should map out an alternate route from home to work and back just in case."



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