Surge in heat deaths means Maricopa County medical examiner staff work more shifts, additional hours
Maricopa County has seen a huge uptick in heat related deaths compared to last year. For the people who investigate those deaths, it means working longer hours and more shifts.
To date, Maricopa County has confirmed 133 heat-related deaths so far this year, and another 341 are under investigation. Dr. Jeff Johnston is the county’s chief medical examiner.
"So, we certainly increased more working hours, we added a lot of shifts," said Dr. Jeff Johnston, the county’s chief medical examiner. "We were operating at 68% above what our typical operating maximums are."
And they sustained that pace over a four-week period during the month of July.
"Unfortunately, there aren't any staff to bring in. So, there's no autopsy technicians from hospitals or forensic pathologists that are just sort of out in the community working somewhere else. We’re really it. There’s no relief force for us," he said.
Which means supporting staff who experience burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma with a peer support group and therapy animals, as well as other tools.
"Most of the staff except for the physicians are trained by us. There's not a school to be a forensic autopsy technician or school to be a medical legal death investigator. We have to train those folks. And it typically takes about three months to start somebody off and get them to a place where they can independently be productive for the team," Johnston said.