Lengthy wait to use training frustrates program volunteers

By CATHY LOGG

Herald Writer

EVERETT — Mill Creek resident Ryan Roberts owns a towing company. Marc Van Driessche is a Lynnwood chiropractor. Katherine McKinnon of Seattle is molecular biologist. And Lisa Tanzer is a Seattle real estate agent who plans to go to medical school.

The four all have one thing in common: they’ve waited one to two years and invested a lot of time and money to become volunteer reserve medical examiners.

But the program they applied and qualified for still hasn’t been implemented, and all four are frustrated and disappointed. They say that for the past year they’ve been unable to get information from the Snohomish County medical examiner’s office on when — or if — the program, which was approved in 1998 and funded, will begin.

"We don’t have anybody in the program at this time," Medical Examiner Dr. Norman Thiersch said. "The framework is there. We have identified some people who are interested in participating. We have not initiated any training with them. It’s only in the early stages."

Thiersch’s office is short-staffed, he said. He couldn’t say when the program would begin.

People in the reserve medical examiner program would be to Thiersch’s office what reserve deputies are to police agencies. They would perform duties in the office, such has typing death investigation information into computer databases, but also would be trained to go to death scenes and provide extra help in the field, without costing the county any money.

"That certainly wouldn’t hurt our efforts," Thiersch said. "We’re a small office and, at times, thinly staffed."

Reserve medical examiners also could apply for paid staff positions as they opened because Thiersch’s staff would know exactly what training they’d had, he said.

The volunteers went through an application process, a lengthy questionnaire, a tour and orientation, a tough exam, panel and individual oral interviews and a background check.

"If they’re talking about manpower issues and money, this certainly would help," Van Driessche said. "We’re all volunteers."

He took about 20 hours from his practice for the sessions, and closed his office a whole day for the oral boards, he said.

McKinnon and Tanzer were studying at Seattle University together when they applied two years ago. They’ve called periodically, but don’t get called back or get answers. At one point, Tanzer said, Thiersch’s staff didn’t have the money for the applicants’ physical exams, she said. She and McKinnon paid for their own exams.

McKinnon, who is considering becoming a forensic pathologist, is British, and one requirement is to be a U.S. citizen. She hired an attorney and spent between $850 and $1,000 to get her citizenship, she said. During her interview, she’d been told her training would be limited because she had no experience working with police and firefighters, she said. She’s now completing her EMT certification so she can gain that experience.

"We jumped at the opportunity to volunteer our time," Tanzer said. "The time is your investment, but the educational experience is your reward. I was on a service mission in Brazil and I came back early just to make sure I didn’t miss a testing date," she said.

Roberts said the program drew about 200 applicants, including talented people from police and fire training, doctors, EMT and morticians. The first delays he heard about were due to lack of money and the county prosecutor’s concerns over the program, but the funding problem was resolved months ago, and still they’ve heard nothing.

"I don’t know if (Thiersch) doesn’t want this program to go, or he doesn’t want to run it," Roberts said.

All four say they are discouraged, but hope the program will begin soon because it will benefit them, Thiersch’s office and the whole community.

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