Coroner asking for more full-time death investigators as county grows

By Guy Busby
Government Editor
guy@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 5/13/22

ROBERTSDALE – The county's population growth is putting an increased demand on death investigations. The Baldwin County Coroner's Office is now handling more cases in a month than many counties …

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Coroner asking for more full-time death investigators as county grows

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ROBERTSDALE – The county's population growth is putting an increased demand on death investigations. The Baldwin County Coroner's Office is now handling more cases in a month than many counties in Alabama perform in a year, Coroner Brian Pierce said.

Pierce is asking the Baldwin County Commission to add two full-time accredited death investigators to the office staff.

Commissioners said they want to see more information on the costs during upcoming budget hearings for the new fiscal year.

"For us to move forward on our strategic plan for the Coroner's Office, to meet our functional population and be prepared for a mass casualty event, part of our vision for doing this is to move from more of a single coroner to more of an agency, so we have an office of the coroner with a command staff so we can serve our citizens and all our visitors," Pierce told commissioners Monday, May 2.

Commissioner Billie Jo Underwood said the request should be included in plans for the new budget year when hearings begin in a few weeks.

"I think we need to wait until budget season on this," Underwood said. "This is a huge jump from where we were just a year ago and I thought we were making good strides."

She suggested that the request be tabled until more financial information is available.

"Nobody has even discussed it," Underwood said. "We have a lot of things in our strategic plan that we haven't even discussed yet."

Under the proposal, two part-time positions would be eliminated, and the two full-time death investigators would be hired, Pierce said. The change would cost another $23,000 a year, according to the proposed resolution.

Commissioner Charles "Skip" Gruber said he believed benefits would increase the costs.

"This is going to be a big expense total for the whole coming years," Gruber said. "You've got to figure vacation and sick leave and all the benefits that go along with it to include in it. That's going to be more than $23,000."

On Friday, May 6, Pierce said the number of calls his office has received increased from 460 in 2019 to 660 in 2021. He said calls are still increasing in 2022.

"We're already working 13 this month and today's only the sixth," Pierce said.

He said many Alabama counties might have 30 coroner cases in a year.

Pierce said adding full-time trained death investigators will increase the professional response of the office. He said national standards are increasing for death investigations.

"We're not just a body pickup service," Pierce said. "Everyone thinks we just show up and pronounce them dead. We don't. They already know that the person has passed. We're there to put eyes on it, to be that third check. We take photographs, the injuries. We confer with law enforcement. We talk to families about the next step, That's not the law enforcement's job to have to guide the family to the funeral home and the receiving of the body. We're kind of the conduit between law enforcement and the family, between the family and medical exam."

While Mobile County does not have its own coroner and uses the medical examiners in the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences Mobile office, Baldwin County does not have a medical examiner who performs autopsies. Baldwin County death cases are sent to Mobile for autopsies.

Pierce said his office's first priority is more full-time death investigators to handle the increased demand. That demand, however, could lead to Baldwin County having a medical examiner in the future.

He said four of his offices six investigators are accredited through the American Board of Medical Legal Death Investigators, but only he and one other employee are full-time.

Part-time investigators are often first responders in another field and would also be required to work in those areas during an emergency, such as a hurricane, when demands increase.

"Currently, the state does our autopsies over in Mobile in the regional lab," Pierce said. "That's certainly down the road, but last year, typically, a medical examiner is allowed to keep their accreditation to do 250 autopsies a year. I think they may have bumped it in COVID to 300, because there's a shortage of medical examiners. We sent 239 cases over last year. If we grow much more, they're going to have to hire a whole ME just to do our cases. While we're not there yet, what's the stopping point? When do you pull the trigger?"

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