Pa. county coroner offers reporting guidance to first responders

Mercer County Coroner John Libonati said he intended to introduce new procedures to generate more accurate and better information from responders through death reports

Michael Roknick
The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

GREENVILLE — With an audience comprised mostly of first responders, Mercer County Coroner John Libonati asked Wednesday evening what type of death has affected them most severely.

“Children,’’ many in the audience of 30 voiced. Libonati agreed.

“Nothing bothers me more than a child,’’ he said. “A child’s death is one of the most horrifying things for me.’’

Death, especially the death of a child, might not be a pleasant topic. But for emergency responders, death — and dealing with it — is a necessary part of the job.

Death was one subject of a seminar Libonati held Wednesday at UPMC Horizon’s Greenville hospital for first responders, mostly paramedics and emergency medical technicians. As coroner, Libonati’s office is responsible for determining the cause of death in situations ranging from tragic accidents to brutal homicides.

The coroner said he intended to introduce new procedures to generate more accurate and better information from responders through death reports. And perhaps most importantly of all, to identify possible trends in the community and use that information to prevent future deaths.

“It gives us a better snapshot of what’s going on,’’ Libonati said.

To help obtain more detailed information, the coroner gave attendees a sample form, with detailed information to help the coroner’s office.

In addition to the deceased person’s name, the form included space for information including the time the body was discovered, and the person’s marital status and employer. Libonati said he hopes to have a final version of the form in the upcoming weeks.

The coroner’s talk included statistics on the opioid overdose epidemic. In 2015, there were 17 deaths in Mercer County attributed to drug overdoses.

Three years later, that figure surged to 53, he said.

But Libonati said the opioid death trend has been reversing, because of Narcan, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and has been credited with saving lives.

By tracking figures in Mercer County, Libonati found that Narcan was used four times a month by first responders and others in 2015. By 2018, they were using it three times a day.

“I believe the problem is going to get worse,’’ he said of the county’s opioid situation.

The coroner also shared some of the challenges of his work. In one case, Libonati’s office was called on to identify a fire victim burned beyond recognition.

Investigators found the body had a ring on a necklace and thought they knew the victim’s name. But that fell far short of conclusive, Libonati said.

“Anybody could have been wearing that,’’ he said.

His office made the identification based on a tattoo on the woman’s lower back.

As a general rule, first responders shouldn’t move a body until law enforcement officers arrive to investigate the scene. But there are exceptions.

“You can move a body in a car wreck so that you can get to another victim who was hurt but survived,’’ Libonati said.

He also gave guidance on how responders should treat family members after the death of a loved one.

“We don’t just serve the dead in our office, we serve the living,’’ Libonati said.

And on Wednesday night, Libonati’s office was serving those who serve. He told the first responders to seek help when death leaves them with difficulty coping.

Libonati told them that they can reach out to other responders in the community and that mental health professionals are available.

“There are times when you’ll feel alone – that nobody cares,’’ he said. “I can tell you I care.’’


©2019 The Herald (Sharon,Pa)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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