Most first responders don’t think about the concept of attended versus unattended death, but there is a distinction that may be important for the handling of a death scene. Let’s first start with an attended death, which is a bit more straightforward.
An attended death is one in which the decedent has been a patient under medical care for a serious or life-threatening illness that will likely lead to death in a relatively short period of time (days or months, but not years). For individuals in hospice care or some other form of end-of-life care, their death would likely be considered an attended death.
Many deaths in a hospital may also be considered an attended death. For example, a patient has a heart attack and is admitted to an intensive care unit and then dies in the hospital days or even weeks later. That death scenario will likely be considered an attended death.
That doesn’t mean that all deaths of these patients are automatically considered an attended death. If, for example, a hospice patient is killed in a motor vehicle collision, that death is not the result of the underlying terminal illness and will likely be considered an unattended death.
For unattended death, any death that is the result of an injury or illness that is not due to terminal illness will likely be determined to be an unattended death. Most death scenes responded to by first responders are for deaths that are unattended. All unattended death scenes should be handled by the first responder in a way that maintains the integrity of the evidence on scene until such time a law enforcement agency or, in many cases, the medical examiner or coroner arrives on the scene.
These subjects are discussed in more detail in the e-learning educational programs offered by the American Institute of Crime Scene Integrity (AICSI). Go to aicsi.com for more information about these educational programs that are CAPCE approved and earn continuing education units upon completion.