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Coroner Issues Call for Help : Medicine: The understaffed department is looking for volunteers to assist in a number of tasks, including clerical work and grief counseling.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The chronically understaffed Los Angeles County coroner’s office is seeking volunteers to help with everything from typing to transporting bodies.

Faced with a mounting caseload, the office could use as many as 120 volunteers to assist with a variety of tasks, said Barbara Davidson, the new director of the department’s volunteer program.

Volunteers are not new to the busy Los Angeles office, which last year investigated about 18,000 deaths.

“We’ve had people come in the office and say they’d like to volunteer and we have signed them up,” Davidson noted. “That’s been ongoing.”

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But she said this marks the first time the department has actively recruited volunteers to work throughout the office--doing clerical work, counseling grieving families, transporting corpses, helping out in autopsy rooms, or assisting with computer programming.

“We could use help,” acknowledged coroner’s spokesman Bob Dambacher. “We’re chronically understaffed, chronically overworked.”

Although the department was given money to hire additional personnel in its most recent budget, most of the new positions are for forensic pathologists and investigators, rather than the jobs the volunteers are being sought for. Moreover, many of the new openings have yet to be filled.

The second-busiest coroner’s office in the country after New York City, the department experienced a substantial increase in homicide cases this year. As of the end of November, the office had handled 15% more homicides than during the same period in 1989. The total number of deaths investigated was up 2.5% and the number of autopsies performed had risen by 6%.

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Dambacher said the volunteer program has been under discussion for some time and was officially launched last week, before publication of a Times article on the long delays in performing autopsies, which have plagued the office in recent years as a result of its huge workload.

Still, Davidson said that with more help, cases could be processed more quickly.

Unfazed that it will be her job to persuade people to do for nothing what many would refuse to do for pay, Davidson said she has already received calls from potential volunteers.

“I just talked to someone who wants to volunteer,” Davidson said. “She graduated from mortuary school and never went for her license, and she wants to volunteer (doing clerical work).”

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Working in the coroner’s office, Davidson said, will give “people the opportunity to do something very beneficial for their community.”

She noted that the coroner’s office is simply joining the ranks of other county departments that have long had volunteer programs, ranging from library aides to reserve sheriff’s deputies.

“We’re certainly going to try to make it as positive as possible,” she said.


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