Coroner to other coroners: Respond to calls … or leave the job

Essex County Coroner Frank Whitelaw, of Bloomingdale, poses beside his Chevy Tahoe with “coroner” license plates in downtown Saranac Lake. This vehicle is his own, which he paid for, along with all his coroner equipment and training courses; the county didn’t pay for it. (Enterprise photo — Antonio Olivero)

I haven’t felt compelled to respond to rebuttal commentary regarding the coroner issues because I said what needed to be said during interviews. I had the opportunity to make my comments off the record because it started out as an informal conversation. It was time to say something. Some things need clarification and correction.

I am not overworked. The other coroners are underworked. If you want the job, answer the phone and get out there. It’s that easy. If your life has you in a position that doesn’t allow you to respond to calls or if you don’t want to respond, leave the job. It’s that easy. If you don’t answer the phone or change your phone numbers and don’t respond to calls, yet you take your paycheck, you’re lazy. PERIOD. If you take a full year’s salary while you live out of state, you’re very dishonest, at the very least. If you charge the county for body removals and body bag fees while you are out of state, you may be a criminal, but that’s for the legal system to rule on.

All the Essex County coroners transfer remains in personal vehicles. There is nothing that prohibits it. New York State County Law allows the coroner to transport for the purpose of furthering the investigation. The investigation isn’t over until a death certificate is signed.

Every coroner case is a medico-legal death investigation. Many are straightforward, and a sign-off from the primary medical provider is enough. Try calling a doctor at home at 2 a.m. or on weekends/holidays. It doesn’t happen. What happens when the family has no clue of which funeral provider they will use or if the person is from out of the area and we haven’t talked to the family yet? The remains go to a morgue, and the coroner should do the removal. The remains have to be under the control of the coroner until released to a funeral home for final disposition. Sometimes, taking the path of least resistance isn’t the way to go. Sometimes, the hard path is the right path. Transporting a body is difficult. It’s very physical. Others would have you believe that if a funeral home removes a body, the county saves all this extra money. No. The county has to pay a funeral home what they would pay the coroner for removal in cases where the remains go to the morgue. If the remains can go directly to a funeral home in a case where a doctor is contacted and agrees to sign the death certificate, the cost is borne by the family.

My personal gain from all the extra money that rolls in has purchased a $1,600 oversized gurney, rated for 900 pounds; a $750 stainless steel gurney tray; cases of rubber gloves; Tyvek suits for the ugly cases; shoe covers; respirator; biohazard bags; a computer for completing case files; car payments; registration and insurance for the vehicle used for county business; training conferences; online courses and a whole laundry list of other expenses. To get that extra money, one must work. If others worked, they could make that money. The issue isn’t money. The issue is, people are receiving county money for doing nothing. The money I receive, I work for, and many times I’m doing work that others should be doing.

As for being stuck covering the county by myself if there were no other coroners … I pretty much have been, and have been managing just fine. I’ve even found time to give anti-drug talks at schools, St. Joe’s Rehab and local civic groups. Did I mention I don’t get paid for those engagements and don’t ask for pay? I also secure, inventory and dispose of medications at scene, so law enforcement isn’t stuck logging all of it as evidence, which is a huge pain. I also secure pharmacy records and medical records when needed for the investigation.

At minimum, the county needs two coroners. I don’t want to be the sole coroner. I also have a personal life that involves looking after a mother-in-law who lives with us, an elderly father who needs my help frequently, my band and my bowling league. Coroner work isn’t my whole life. It’s my second career, and I treat it that way. For other coroners who don’t or can’t, that’s just fine. At least go to work and be here to go to work.

As for calling Ray Brook before I’m called to tell them I’m on my way … ummmmm, Ray Brook hasn’t done dispatch for quite some time. Dispatch is out of Lewis, but one would only know that if one was taking calls. If I hear a call in my designated area of St. Armand, North Elba, Wilmington, Jay, Newcomb, Keene, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, I go without being called. It’s called being efficient and proactive. Motivated and dedicated people do that. I’ve been the law man on the other end waiting well over an hour for a coroner to show up. It’s nice when they get there sooner rather than later. Families appreciate a quick response, too.

Yes, I do death investigations. That’s what I’m trained for. Another set of trained eyes at a death scene is always an asset. If you’re not trained in this field, it’s good to recognize your limitations and stay within your own skill set. I’ve been doing death investigation since 1988 and haven’t reached the thousands. Not even when I was a forensic investigator with the state police and covering five counties. I can only hope that I never get thousands of deaths. At that point, I would be overworked. Thousands of calls all over the county? … No.

$4,400 just for being on call? No. I thought being on call meant you had to answer the phone and be available to go to work. I wish my conscience could allow me to ignore the phone, or to change my phone numbers without providing new numbers to agencies who need my services. It would be great to spend six months or more in Florida while collecting my “on-call” pay for the whole year. I’m just not wired that way. My phone rings, I go to work. I go to work, the county pays me. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

Frank Whitelaw lives in Bloomingdale.

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