Forgotten Coroners

Coroners' offices struggle to find 21st-century information systems.

by / April 30, 2007

While the population in Kane County, Ill., grew, so did business at the coroner's office.

Though the county's population burgeoned by 27 percent during the 1990s, and by nearly 20 percent between 2000 and 2005, that growth wasn't matched by an increase to the 12-member coroner staff. Coroner Chuck West, a chief deputy, six deputies, three administrative assistants and an office manager processed more than 2,500 deaths and approximately 150,000 forms per year for the county.

Kane County's population is approaching 500,000 people, and it is one of the fastest growing counties in Illinois. When you add an antiquated database system - where data on each deceased person had to be entered separately on up to 15 forms - and the database's propensity to eat complete files, you have a recipe for long hours and lots of typing.

But that all changed when several vendors helped the office develop its own system - the Coroner's Office Automation System (COAS).


Out With the Old
The older system offered neither a way to generate reports nor draw statistics from the data because the database was decentralized.

Since there was no money to hire more personnel, West enlisted his IT staff two years ago to find a system to help eliminate some repetition in the processes of entering data into the many forms and issuing countless certificates.

Just about anything would've been better than the old Foxpro database that had outlived its welcome. "The older system was horrible, that's about the only thing you can say," West said. "It had been discontinued, and we weren't able to get any support for the last six years we used it. We'd lose records. If you'd enter something, the system had a tendency to erase whole case files."

That meant staff had to recover the paperwork associated with the erased files and re-enter data into the system. "We literally had to hand type 14 or 15 different documents for every single case," West said. "And we do about 2,600 investigations a year."

And when a death occurred, the deceased was assigned a number, which a staff member would write down on a legal-sized piece of paper that contained other pertinent facts, such as name of deceased or time of death, among other things. The information was typed into multiple forms and entered in the database, in which spelling and other errors were common because of the difficulty in reading someone else's handwriting.

Furthermore, West and the IT staff came up empty-handed in their search for a better system, which meant many coroners' offices were doing a lot of extra typing. It seems equipping county coroners' offices around the country isn't a top priority in government budgets, and consequently, there are few, if any, database programs addressing their needs. "That's why, when we talked to our IT department, they also did a search," West said, "and we talked to Business Systems and they went looking too, and couldn't find anything for us."

Staff decided to approach several vendors, including CDWG, to try to develop a system expressly for Kane County. "We could develop a system that would be useful to us, and from the perspective of the companies that got involved in it, it would be a potential product they could sell," West said.

The coroner's office ended up with a new system that revolutionized the way staff went about their daily business.


User-Centric Design
The Kane County Information Technologies Department and CDWG eventually joined with Ta-Kenset Research Laboratories, Toshiba, Dell and Verizon Wireless to develop the system that would change office operations. "The IT department and CDWG are really the ones that pulled this together," said Diane Stredde, who, as office manager of the coroner's office, described the office's inner workings to CDWG and Ta-Kenset. "The people developing our program didn't know anything about how our office runs and what we need. It was my job to convey the needs of our office because there are no programs out there."

From there, CDWG, the coroner's office and the IT department created a proposal. The result was the software development by Ta-Kenset and the donation of six Toshiba Port

Jim McKay Contributing Editor

Jim McKay is the editor of Emergency Management magazine. He lives in Orangevale, Calif., with his daughter, Ellie, and son, Ronan. He relaxes by fly fishing on the Truckee River for big, wild trout.

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