Death on hold

County coroner’s office waits for larger facility and licensed medical examiner to serve growing population


SUMMERDALE, Alabama — When people talk about growth in Baldwin County, few probably think about the impact Baldwin’s growth has on death investigations and the needs of the Baldwin County Coroner’s office, but it’s something Dr. Brian Pierce thinks about almost daily.

On Thursday, Feb. 6, Pierce addressed members of the Central Baldwin Chamber of Commerce on the topic, “Growth Through the Eye of the Coroner,” breakfast meeting at the 519 Event Center in Summerdale, sponsored by Baldwin County Sewer Service.

Pierce addressed issues of growth, including the need for additional staff and a new facility in the near future.

“Baldwin County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state and we have to grow along with it,” Pierce said.

Pierce and his staff, which includes Chief Deputy Troy Dyess, deputy coroners Daren Montgomery and Stephen Street, and two office staff, Chief Administrative Assistant Brandy Byrd and Administrative Assistant Shanna Bonner, handled 479 cases over the last year, an average of 1.3 per day. Former Baldwin County Coroner Stan Vinson also helps as an accreditation consultant.

“We cover 2,000 square miles with an estimated population of 212,000,” Pierce said. “That does not take into account the 6.5 million tourists that visit Baldwin County every year.”

One of the biggest immediate needs for the Coroner’s Office, Pierce said, is the need for a licensed medical examiner.

“Right now, it takes us several months to get an autopsy report back from the nearest medical examiner’s office,” Pierce said. “We have families that are losing their homes because they cannot file an insurance claim. In order to file an insurance claim, they need a death certificate. We can’t sign a death certificate without knowing a cause of death, and we can’t determine a cause of death without an autopsy report.”

Once the 2020 census is complete, Pierce said, Baldwin’s estimated population is expected to jump to 240,000. By 2040, the population is expected to top 300,000.

“In order for us to qualify to receive a licensed medical examiner, we’re being told we need a population of more than 250,000,” he said, “we’re very close, but we’re not quite there yet.”

Another major need for the Coroner’s Office, Pierce said, is the need for a larger facility.

The Coroner’s Office currently operates out of a 1,750 square foot facility, located on County Road 54, opened in 2009.

The facility, named for longtime Baldwin County Coroner Huey A. Mack Sr. and dedicated to Mack and Coroner Jim Small, who was instrumental in getting the facility built, includes office space, a room for evidence storage, an examination room and cold storage that can hold up to 15 cases.

“There was talk of moving the facility into the new 9-1-1 building that was being built,” Pierce said, “but for a variety of reasons, including a lack of privacy and a lack of proper ventilation needed, it was soon discovered that would not work.

The Coroner’s Office recently worked with a consulting group to identify both short and long term goals for the office.

They were able to identify one-year, three-year and five-year goals while recognizing the need to set long-range goals up to 25 years, Pierce said.

One of the biggest goals in the short term is the passage of the Baldwin County ACT, which would turn control of the Coroner’s Office over to the Baldwin County Commission.

“Right now, in order to get something done, it has to be done by an act of the State Legislature,” Pierce said. “By getting this bill passed, we can make changes, simply by a vote of the County Commission and I think that will free us up to accomplish some of our other goals.”

By 2023, Pierce said, the Coroner’s Office hopes to break ground on a new facility. The plan, he said, is to build a modular facility that could be added onto over time, eventually being large enough to keep up with the county’s growth.

Another three-year goal is to have a mass-casualty plan in place.

“Right now, we are not equipped to handle a mass casualty event, which I consider to be an event involving more than five deaths,” Pierce said. “We dodged a bullet with the bus crash (a charter bus carrying high school students from Texas crashed on westbound Interstate 10 just east of Loxley in May of 2018 after the driver died of an apparent heart attack. No one else was killed in the accident.) and we need something in place, because it is not a question of if it is going to happen, but when.”

Pierce said if there were to be a mass-casualty event, the Coroner’s Office would work with the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency to call additional assistance.

Five-year goals for the department include a full-time morgue attendant, having a total of six certified investigators (the department now has four), and having the ability to perform autopsies in Baldwin County.

Another goal for the Coroner’s Office is to be able to review newly established standard operating procedures (SOPs) with the county’s 13 law enforcement agencies, fire and EMS responders, hospice agencies, hospitals and funeral homes.

“People think all we do is show up and declare someone dead,” Pierce said, “but we do so much more. In fact, declaring someone dead is something we don’t actually do. That has already been done by the time we get there by the first responders on the scene. My hat’s off to all of those men and women and to all the agencies we work with. Without them, we could not do what we do.”