Moving into 2021, Paul Johnson steps up from deputy coroner to coroner. The previous coroner decided to not see reelection, so Johnson did. Johnson, 59, has lived in McDuffie County since 1974 and was originally from Augusta. Through the years, he has had ties to both communities during a 39-year career in the fire service. It all started in 1980 when he was hired as a volunteer with the Thomson Fire Department. “I enjoyed being a volunteer and went to go full time with Richmond County,” he said. That was in 1983. “I still stayed on with Thomson and when I retired, I retired from both of them.” On Jan. 1 2019, Johnson retired from the Augusta Fire Department, which had consolidated with Richmond County in 1996. At the same time, he retired from the Thomson Fire Department. “I retired as a captain down there and I retired as the assistant chief/training officer with the City of Thomson.” Although he secedes Foster Wylie as McDuffie County coroner, Johnson will still be working closely with Wylie, who now will trade roles and be the deputy coroner. Wylie asked Johnson to serve as his deputy coroner in 2016. Johnson took the 40-hour training class and started responding to coroner calls. Coroners and deputy coroners have to attend 24 hours of training each year to maintain certification. “I had always felt the calling to go into that field and I knew I needed something as I got closer to retirement,” Johnson said. “It’s not really supposed to be a full time job, but, it’s more of a full time job. People in the county don’t realize how much time this coroner’s office takes up.” “Just because we came out to a death call, it’s not over,” he said “We still have to take care of getting the body to a funeral home, to the crime lab, or wherever it needs to be and then families still may be in contact with you for several months afterwards because of reports, or insurance stuff, or just general knowledge of things that come up.” He admits, working as a coroner means you face some difficult situations. “Being a coroner you’ve got to have compassion. It’s hard to give somebody bad news sometimes. We have to also notify next of kin of the death,” he said. “We do it in person. Last resort, we want to do it over the phone.” Even if a person from elsewhere dies here, Johnson said it is common to contact a coroner or agency in that person’s home community and have someone go break the news to the family in person. “I’ve had to make notifications as far away as Washington state,” he added. What does a coroner do when they are notified of a death? The coroner’s office works with many agencies, local and state, plus doctors, hospitals and insurance companies. “It’s just a wide range,” he said. “We go out and assist with determining the cause of death because we also have to take the responsibility of filling out the death certificate,” Johnson explained. “We assist with the death investigation, what caused the death, take photos, and we’re responsible for the funeral home that they families want to use, and make sure arrangements are made to get the body to the right funeral home,” he said. The coroner, or deputy coroner, is responsible for the body and personal items on the body in addition to making the notification. What does it take for a person to be the one willing to have to make those notifications? “It’s not easy. It gets emotional, especially if it’s a child,” he said. Johnson said it can also be hard in a small community, because the person notifying the family often knows the family members. When bodies are sent away for autopsies, he said he always tries to keep families informed, while waiting on results. Johnson said if the death is a local individual, he also likes to contact their doctor and let them know of the death as a courtesy. Johnson said he is interested in creating a chaplain call list of pastors willing to be avaliable to respond to help people when a loved one dies. Years ago there was one, explained Johnson as he talked of reviving the list. “We’re all for any pastors out there that are willing to help be a chaplain on call for the coroners office to please get in touch with Foster or I,” he said. The past year, 2020, was a busy year for the McDuffie County Coroner’s Office. Johnson said the death calls can be sporadic — sometimes not having many then having multiple ones at the same time. One weekend this past summer, Johnson responded to two deaths at a home near Dearing and then 30 minutes later Wylie was called to a death investigation at a home in Thomson. “We had 102 calls for the year for 2020. We’ve been averaging close to 90 to 100, but we had 102 this past year,” he said. Johnson said there is a need to create a morgue in McDuffie County and establish a coroner’s office where a family can come meet with him with him as needed. For now, he has an office in the former city fire station on Washington Road. As far as the morgue, he said the hospital has the ability to keep three or four bodies but the coroner’s office needs to be able to hold bodies until they are sent to the funeral homes requested by families. He points out that with Interstate 20 running through McDuffie County, a multi-fatality accident could cause a need to store more bodies past what the hospital can handle. Past his duties as coroner, the retired firefighter enjoys spending time with family and hunting. Johnson is married, has five children, and eight grand children. Two of the children followed in his foot steps and are in the fire service. “Family is important to me,” he said.
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