Elias Bobridge runs a business you hope you’ll never have to call.
But it’s also one that gives great comfort and peace of mind to those who do.
With his partner Charina Farry, Bobridge owns and operates Aust Biocleaning Trauma and Bio-hazard Cleaning Services, a Brisbane small business that professionally cleans and decontaminates violent crime and unattended death scenes, filth from hoarders or squatters and meth labs.
Bobridge, who had worked in marketing for 20 years, and his partner Farina, a registered nurse, set up the business three years ago to spare the families of loved ones who have passed away in violent or tragic circumstances the trauma of cleaning the scene, and homes that have deteriorated to the point they present a health hazard.
“The idea came probably in about 2004,” Bobridge told The Huffington Post Australia.
“I was at a barbecue with a couple of friends, and they were telling me a story about their friend who committed suicide. Back then there was no-one around to clean up after that sort of thing so my friend, being a good friend, said that he’d do it, to take the burden off them.
“It really traumatised him though, because he was too close to it all. I kept thinking about that.
“A few years later, I really needed a change -- I was working in marketing in the printing industry for 20 years -- and was thinking about things I could do.
“You need to find a niche market in anything you do really, and that barbecue came back into my head.
“I looked into it and found like there were 7,800 cleaning companies in Australia at the time and only seven catered for that particular need, and most were based in Melbourne and Sydney -- none in Brisbane.”
Bobridge said that he talked to friends and family about the possible new career path, and most didn’t realise such a job even existed.
“The awareness of this industry still isn’t as good as it is in the USA -- there it’s as common as carpet cleaners,” he said.
“People here still think the police or ambulance clean up (crime) scenes, but it’s not the case.
“They do what they have to do, and then they leave everything for the families, or property owners or whoever.”
He said he sat with the idea for a few more years before meeting his partner Farry, who was also looking for a career change.
“When I met Charina four years ago, she was frustrated with her job too and said maybe we could work together,” he said.
“I told her about my idea, and because she is a nurse, she knew a lot about it, and it went from there. The first bio cleaning company started in 1990 in the USA and now it’s a $1.5b industry per annum, so we knew it could work.”
Support early on was crucial
Bobridge said when he launched the business he visited every police station along the 200km journey from Gympie to Loganholme to introduce himself.
“I went to every station and handed out business cards,” he said.
“The response from the police was overwhelming, they were like ‘excellent, we really need someone like you’.
“Now, 95 percent of our work comes from the police. They pass on our number to the family or friends, or landlord, and it goes from there.”
He said he also networked with a lot of other small businesses during that set-up phase.
“I rang up other businesses that do trauma cleaning, and introduced myself and our business,” he said.
“The way I look at it is, other businesses, they’re not your enemies, you work with them. You build up relationships with them, and it’s been good for us.
“I’ve met a lot of good people, particularly those who deal with meth labs. And now we work with a few of them, and we call in one guy, an ex-police officer we know from Sydney, whenever we’re called to a meth lab.”
Putting everything on the line
Bobridge said he sold his house to finance the business, buying all the equipment the couple needed to get started.
“Everything went into the business,” he said. “That outlay for us -- including advertising on the car -- was probably around $30,000.
“You need general cleaning equipment -- all your protective suits, booties, gloves, and all that has to go out after every job. All the cleaning products, mopheads, brooms, cloths, everything from each job is thrown out after each job.
“Also, a fogger is handy. You can put chemicals in that and it will heat it up and it comes out like steam, like a fog, and that can kill all bacteria in a room in about 15 minutes.
“You also need clinical waste bins to put everything in afterwards. We also store and transport everything in a lockable trailer.”
What they do
Aust Biocleaning Trauma and Bio-hazard Cleaning Services clean anything that’s a potential bio-hazard, or any material that may be toxic or infectious.
In the case of a death, police will generally advise the family not to enter until the crew has attended.
“When we get there we put on our protective gear -- booties, marks and all that -- and go in evaluate the situation,” he said.
“Every situation is different, but usually the carpets and furniture all have to go, and sometimes floorboards as well. Anything that’s porous it’s got to go, or you’ll never get rid of the small, and it’ll breed bacteria. You have to get rid of the source -- it’s basically like peeling an onion, you have to strip away the layers.
“With Charina’s medical background, she’s very good at assessing the situation and the risk of infection and bacterial contamination.”
Bobridge said while his job is one most people wouldn’t want to do, he does it for the families.
“When we’re finished, we make everything sparkling again, and always go above and beyond,” he said.
“We clean everything up, the whole house, all those little details play a big part for the family, you know, it’s traumatic enough. And we get such an amazing response from the families, they’re so grateful.”
What does a trauma cleaning service cost?
Bobridge said the costs of bio-hazard and trauma cleaning varied greatly.
“We’re based in Brisbane but we’ll travel in a 300km radius, and will even go interstate if we're needed,” Bobridge said.
“It’s not a cheap service. We may go two months without a job. And then we might get two or three calls around the same time.
“On average, some jobs can be around $5,000, some are as high as $10,000. A meth lab is minimum $25,000 -- you’ve got to decontaminate and bring it down to a certain level.
“If you clean it once, chances are it’s low enough to live in. The chemicals we use for that costs us $500 for 4 litres. Meth labs aren’t as common as you might think though, the big ones anyway. If police shut down a meth lab, then the house is condemned -- we've got a crew in Sydney who have been trained in the USA we have on contract.
“We don’t do it personally, but work hand-in-hand with them.”
Aussie industry needs regulation
Bobridge said trauma cleaning is relatively new to Australia, with only a handful of companies offering full, bio-hazard and trauma cleaning services.
In the US trauma cleaners are as common as carpet cleaners, and most had either a medical or law enforcement background.
“The reason being, they have knowledge in infection control and have knowledge about the health and safety of blood-borne pathogens, and dealing with those situations,” he said.
“Here in Australia, when I did my research, most people that say they do trauma cleaning are just glorified carpet cleaners.
“When it comes to the decontamination of meth labs in this country we have guidelines to follow, but they’re only guidelines.
"Basically, you just have make sure all the contaminants and contaminated waste are disposed of correctly, test the area to bring it down to a neutral level -- and that’s it.
“In the US, they actually have restrictions, not just guidelines. I have no doubt that in 10-15 years time when this industry grows, and it will grow, we’ll start having more restrictions.
“If you get a carpet cleaner with no understanding of infection control and health and safety, and they don’t do it properly, they’re putting the next family at risk, especially if they have elderly or children crawling around.
“It is such a new industry in Australia here, no one really knows it exists, but it really needs to be regulated.”
Job can take a personal toll
Bobridge said that while Farry was used to working in traumatic scenarios, he took a little longer to get used to it.
“Charina, she’s used to it, it’s not a problem for her,” he said.
“She’s the sort of person who cries when she sees a kitten getting hurt, but she’s used to the stuff we do, and she’s the one who is always there helping the families and being supportive of them.
“Post traumatic stress disorder is something you can get from this industry -- and I’m so lucky I have her there. Sometimes when you see photos of friends and family on the walls, that can be hard.
“But Charina tells me, ‘you’ve got to remember we’re here to help the families who are grieving’ and she’s right. They’re hurting and we’re here to help them.”
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 131 114 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300659467. Further information and general support are available from beyond blue on 1300 224 636.