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Crime-scene cleanup company eases burden of trauma victims

May 19, 2008

They've been called in to tear up carpeting and scrub down walls at a crime scene, where they work in protective suits and breathe through respirators. On any given day, they could be dealing with everything from the mess left by a decomposing body to a home that's been declared a biohazard.

What may sound like a scene out of "CSI" is in fact a day at the office for Bio-Trauma 911 Inc., a seven-person crime-scene cleanup company housed in unassuming offices in a strip center on East 56th Street at Interstate 465.

Trained technicians are dispatched across the Midwest to deal with messes too extensive for carpet cleaners and contractors.

Co-founders Brandon Stone, Michael Moore and James Nielson started the company in 2005 to help families avoid the harrowing task of cleaning up in the aftermath of a homicide or suicide.

"Too many family members think they have to clean up themselves," Stone said. "That just adds to their grief."

Even 10 years ago, options for victims' families were fairly limited. Stone said Bio-Trauma 911 was the first firm of its kind in Indianapolis and the only one he could find in Indiana.

The partners--former law enforcement officers who had started two security companies together--spent $40,000 on a used van, protective gear and training. Stone and an employee traveled to Texas to learn the ropes from an established cleaning firm there.

Once they were ready to go, the trio reached out to law enforcement contacts, victims' assistance groups and insurance agents. But business started slowly.

In 2006, its first full year, Bio-Trauma 911 posted only about $13,000 in sales--the equivalent of about 72 hours of work. Now it averages one job a week and expects 2008 revenue to reach $150,000.

About 60 percent of the company's work is performed in Indiana.

Usually, a homeowner's insurance policy will cover cleanup costs, which starts at $180 an hour. At least two trained technicians go on each job. The work involved depends on the situation, from minor disinfecting to complete overhauls.

Technicians remove any contaminated materials--carpet, subflooring and drywall, for example--using plastic bags inside labeled tubs. The tubs, in turn, are sent to locally based Statewide Medical Services and Supply Inc., which incinerates the contents as required by federal law.

Bio-Trauma employees then clean and chemically treat any porous surfaces that remain before technicians replace carpet, drywall and paint.

While the company's focus is crime scenes, about half its sales come from what industry insiders call "gross filth" cases--homes that become biohazards because the occupant, often someone with a mental illness, has let the conditions deteriorate to the point of being dangerous.

Stone tells of one case where a landlord in Ohio called Bio-Trauma in to clean a property after a tenant had been evicted. Technicians removed an entire contractor-sized dumpster full of trash. The toilets appeared as if they hadn't been flushed in years and the resident had been keeping live chickens in the living room.

"It's amazing some people can survive for years living like this," he said.

In another case, a Wisconsin-based children's clothing store called the company in to disinfect the shop after employees kept getting ill.

Even as Bio-Trauma has grown, many other startups have entered the field. A Web search now shows several companies offering cleaning services in Indiana. According to the American Bio-Recovery Association, a Massachusetts-based trade group, about 900 such crime-scene cleanup firms exist nationwide.

In Indiana, the companies are largely unregulated. Stone requires his technicians to take classes on federal standards for handling hazardous materials and correctly using protective gear.

Bio-Trauma also has launched its own training classes, offering up its expertise four times a year to people wanting to get into the business. Participants have come from as far away as Maine and even Europe to learn via mock crime scenes, complete with blood and tissue from a butcher.

For companies helping grieving families, having a reliable cleanup service is a godsend.

"More and more traumas happen within the home and most people don't know what to do," said Mitch Hadley, an insurance agent with Danville-based Hadley Insurance Inc.

Although Hadley couldn't give details, he said he has called on Bio-Trauma twice to handle cleanups for clients. In one case, the homeowners were away recuperating and, when they returned, the home was like new.

"[Bio-Trauma] went out there and you couldn't tell anything had happened," Hadley said.

But a big challenge for a small business in this specialized of a niche is how to market its services.

"This isn't a business with repeat customers," Stone said.

Though it would be fairly easy to track down the surviving family of crime victims, Stone doesn't go that route. Instead, he tries to develop a rapport with first responders, insurance agents, funeral homes and victims' assistance organizations.

He also has branched out into online advertising. And he just purchased some newspaper ads, but they haven't run long enough to see an impact yet.

"We just want people to know this service exists," he said.

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