It was a relatively safe hunting season in Burnett County this year, according to Sheriff Tracy Finch, who gave an outline to county officials at the latest Burnett County Public Safety Committee meeting.

“No gunshot, or hunting related gunshot issues (this hunting season),” Finch told the committee on Thursday, Dec. 2, as she outlined some of the latest news from her department. “One man fell from a tree stand and passed away, but it was not gun-related.”

However, the sheriff sadly confirmed what county Medical Examiner Mike Maloney told the committee earlier in the day, regarding the volume of deaths in the county, so far in 2021.

“We’ve had a lot of deaths in the last couple weeks,” Finch added. “It’s actually been a bad couple of weeks.”

Maloney said the good news from his office is that at least one area of death prevention efforts appear to be paying off.

“Suicide prevention is working,” Maloney said. “We haven’t had any (in 2021) that’s a really good thing.”

However, while Maloney said there have not been any suicides this year in the county, there have 

been a notable number of overall deaths, so far.

“We’re at 129 (deaths), which is the highest number we’ve ever had. It’s been really busy,” Maloney said, clarifying that the large volume of deaths appears to be from a number of factors, including several tragic car crashes, the pandemic, several fires and more.

“We also had three people drown this year,” Maloney added.

The discussion on the fatalities and the medical examiner’s handling of the fatal year led to a discussion about how the Medical Examiner’s office has handled everything from the pandemic to fatal crashes, and some of the unique challenges someone faces on a death scene, including how many of the responders are essentially trapped at the scene until there is an official pronouncement of death by one of the deputy medical examiners or Maloney himself. 

It was noted that some of the people on scene are not technically needed, but must stay until that death declaration is made, which can sometimes take several hours before someone with the official capacity makes the call, even if the person is obviously deceased. 

Both Maloney and others defended the department and their response, citing the size of the county and how at least one of the five deputy medical examiner is always ‘on call,’ which means they cannot do other activities, tasks or travel while they are on the clock, regardless of whether they are called to the scene of a death.

As Maloney and others noted, medical examiners are hard to come by, and if the deceased requires an autopsy, it must be transported several hours away, which then ties that person up even further, such as when there is another death during the autopsy transport.

The other issue was how other people from law enforcement, fire departments, first responders, even ambulance drivers are asked to stay on the scene until that official death call is made.  

Committee member Gene McLain asked about maybe looking at ways to solve the waiting problem, and chairperson Gerald Pardun asked if they could maybe look over the system of being ‘on-call’ for the medical examiner’s office, to keep the waits down, and to help the families of the deceased.

“You do what you can,” Maloney said, noting that it would require a significant effort and cost to keep more deputy medical examiners at the ready. “You don’t know when they’re going to die, or where they’re going to die.”

The committee also discussed ways to solve the waiting issue, and one mention was to maybe  go to more of a ‘first responder’ concept, there someone would be available if needed, and only compensated if they respond to a death scene.

“I think it looks like a problem worth addressing,” Chairman Pardun said in closing.

Burnett County administrator Nate Ehalt later said he would look at the issue, and evaluate possible solutions, and see if there are answers that don’t require additional hiring. 

In other committee business:

• Medical Examiner Maloney noted that the frequency of cremation is now by far the most common way to deal with a body after death.

“It’s becoming the way of the world today,” Maloney said. 

The committee also entertained discussions on possible pandemic concerns for the medical examiner’s office, first responders and law enforcement, even when a person is deceased. 

“A dead body cannot transmit (Covid-19) as far as we’ve been told,” Maloney assured, adding that there is now technology allowing DNA to be extracted from cremation ashes.

• The committee also heard an update on emergency management from director Aaron Bentley, who said they have had a problem with several 911 emergency landlines being inoperable, and that they’ve had trouble getting responses and fixes from Century Link, due to corporate restructuring, making their customer service less than predictable.

“The system does have a lot of redundancy,” Bentley said. “So two lines does not take us out of operation.”

Bentley said the repairs and maintenance issues may be handled by a different company in the future, as Century Link is rebranded, sold or broken up, with Lumen Technologies being the responsible party, for now. 

“Lumen has been somewhat more responsive. I’m not sure which company will take over this branch (of service),” Bentley added, assuring that the 911 system and repeater towers are otherwise is fine shape. 

“Don’t worry, you’re not going to call (911) and get a busy signal,” Bentley stated.

• Administrator Nate Ehalt said the progress on the new public safety facility/jail is moving ahead on schedule, and told the committee that the county has officially closed on the recent bond sale, allowing them to start committing to things that cost real money.

“We now have $30.7-million in hand to go to work for us!” Ehalt stated.

He said they are hoping to have a more firm maximum prices for equipment, labor and construction costs by the next committee meeting in January.

“Everything is on track at this time,” Ehalt said.

Sheriff Tracy Finch added that once they get the finalized plans and the like, her department can start reviewing things that may be in conflict or create issues, as well as ways to possibly save even more as they build a new jail and dispatch facility. 

“Once we get those plans, we can go through them with a fine tooth comb,” Finch stated. 

The committee was pleased to hear the update, and even a few of them joked that they’re hoping the new jail will be a long-term investment. 

“We’re hoping to get 150 years out of it!” Pardun joked, while also praising the involvement and dedication of the county staff on the new facility.

Ehalt also said they are hoping that once all the numbers, bids and other details are finalized, they will be able to make a more firm timeline on construction and eventual occupation.

“At this point, we’re hoping to break ground in May or June,” Ehalt said.