Sheriff, M.E. cut back on requests to add staff

EVERETT — Resource-strapped managers at Snohomish County have retreated from requests to beef up sheriff’s office and medical examiner staffing in response to the Oso mudslide.

The sheriff’s office originally asked to hire four new employees, including a sergeant for search and rescue operations. The medical examiner’s office wanted two more death investigators.

On Wednesday, managers pared down their requests, to one or two positions each. County Council members had questioned whether the positions would address the slide response or pre-existing staffing woes. Both offices have asked that the positions be permanent.

“I understand that we have needs that have been brought to light by because of this extraordinary circumstance, but at the same time we have fixed resources,” County Councilman Ken Klein said.

The March 22 mudslide stretched thin emergency workers from Snohomish County and scores of other agencies that lent temporary help. At times, around 1,000 workers and volunteers were involved.

The sheriff’s search and rescue team played a big part. The unit oversees 300 volunteers and about $4 million in equipment.

Typically, the rescue unit’s supervisor, Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, would coordinate 6,900 volunteer hours during a whole year. Oso alone involved 8,400 volunteer hours.

Slide work often left Wikstrom exhausted without a backup supervisor in the office to relieve him, sheriff’s bureau chief Rob Beidler said. That’s a position the organization needs, he said.

“This is the only one of the four that we consider life-saving,” Beidler said.

The rescue unit is approaching the busy season, from late spring into fall, when people are most likely to get in trouble in the mountains and rivers.

Search and rescue typically involves 130 missions a year, Beidler said. The Oso response was just one mission.

The sheriff’s office believes it can reshuffle staffing to handle three other positions it originally sought: a public disclosure officer, a detective and an evidence technician.

The Medical Examiner’s Office coordinated autopsies and family notifications for the 41 people found dead in the disaster zone. Two more people are missing.

“I know it was a tremendous amount of work and stress,” County Council Chairman Dave Somers said.

Even now, county death investigators sometimes work 16-hour shifts, said Dennis Peterson, the office’s deputy director. That can contribute to burnout, on-the-job injuries and lawsuits.

They cannot provide around-the-clock staffing but must have investigators on call. Often that means staff members respond from home, some from residences outside the county. Ideally, they’d like to arrive at scenes within an hour, Peterson said.

The Medical Examiner’s Office has a $2.2 million budget that supports 14 positions, most of them investigators. One of those positions is vacant.

No decision has been reached about whether to request one or two more positions, Peterson said.

Council members plan to revisit the requests at their 9 a.m. meeting Wednesday.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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