'We have to take care of the living'

"No one wears jeans in the Kitsap County coroner’s office anymore.“I wanted to professionalize the office,” said Coroner Greg Sandstrom. “Things were getting pretty slack around here.”Denim wasn’t the only problem, according to Sandstrom. Seven staff members were sharing one computer. No policy and procedure manual existed. Conflict erupted between Sandstrom and two former deputy coroners.Now, he thinks his administration has wiped the slate clean. “I think people in this county were looking for a fresh start,” he said.In the year since his election, Sandstrom had computer workstations installed for each of his employees, wrote a policy manual and fired two deputies.“I am very pleased with the people I have here now,” he said. “The key point is professionalism.” Sandstrom wouldn’t comment specifically on the staff changes because ex-chief deputy Jane Jermy filed a lawsuit claiming her dismissal was groundless. Jermy’s matter goes to trial next July. Another former deputy coroner, Rene LaPolla, ran against Sandstrom in the 1998 election. She was fired in August.Sandstrom sees his job as half medical and half investigative. Criticized during his campaign for taking part in autopsies without a medical license, Sandstrom explained that he assists a forensic pathologist, and their work is performed under that specialist’s license.“All you have to do to be coroner is get the right number of votes,” Sandstrom said. “But it’s not a job that someone with no experience tries for.”Sandstrom’s experience is five years of on-the-job training as a deputy coroner, training as an emergency medical technician, and dozens of work-related classes. He admits that coroner isn’t something he dreamed of being as a kid. But after 13 years of experience with the State Patrol and later work as a chaplain, the coroner’s post appealed to Sandstrom.“Forensic science is a fascinating field,” Sandstrom said. “To find out the cause, manner and time of death is a scientific puzzle that you have to put together.” And when grieving families want answers about their loved ones’ deaths, Sandstrom said he and his staff try to convey the information compassionately.“We have to take care of the living,” he said. “We have a lot of suffering families, and we’re very honest and open with them. We tell them as much as they want to know.” Sandstrom said his chaplaincy experience helps in that interaction.But dealing with the approximately 1,500 deaths in Kitsap County each year is just part of what a coroner does. That person is also responsible for training other agencies, safety programs and bringing together information from law enforcement, fire and medical teams, and doctors’ and pathologists’ reports.“It’s a team effort. It’s not like on TV--you don’t run the show,” Sandstrom said. He added that the challenge of his first year in office was helped a great deal by other county officials.“They really smoothed the transition,” Sandstrom said. “I don’t have all the answers, but now I know where to find them.”Sandstrom said he will run for re-election in 2002. And by that time, he hopes plans to build a new coroner’s office will be underway in Bremerton, near the National Guard training facility."

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