After 40 years of work at its Fort Valley Road facility, the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s Office has a new home that is bigger, brighter and better than before.
Cars were parked bumper-to-bumper along East Industrial Drive and East Huntington Drive Tuesday afternoon as more than 80 community members and county representatives gathered for a ribbon cutting ceremony and tours of the new facility before normal operations begin in early June.
After seven months of construction and $3.7 million, the repurposed warehouse has become a space for more than just the county’s eight-person medical examiner team.
“As we move forward, this building is about people we serve; about investigating and studying violent, unexpected and suspicious deaths; about assisting and supporting law enforcement; and about helping grieving families and providing closure,” Michael Oxtoby, county interim chief health officer, said.
The new facility is a certified sustainable building totaling approximately 6,200-square feet – more than twice the size of the current building – allowing ample space for both administrative and procedural areas. It also has a 1,700-square-foot storage area.
In addition to a lobby, conference room and offices, the new procedural spaces, including a delivery area, are fully enclosed to protect the privacy of decedents and their families. Despite the increased privacy, though, each room is filled with natural light amplified by pristine white walls.
“The flow of work is going to be much easier,” Dr. Lawrence Czarnecki, chief medical examiner, said.
The delivery area leads directly to a large scale built into the floor and a cooler space that can hold up to 29 bodies – compared to only eight at the current facility. There is also additional tissue storage.
The autopsy suite adjacent to the cooler allows for two simultaneous examinations. This room is the brightest, with north-facing windows, LED lights lining the ceiling and fine-detail work lights that can be pulled toward the two autopsy tables and rotated in nearly every direction.
“There’s more space for storage, which is very important. We have to address things like possible emergencies in Coconino County, possible mass fatalities,” Czarnecki said.
The expanded storage space also accommodates the many diverse groups the office serves beyond the county, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), National Park Service (NPS), Navajo Nation, Hopi Nation and Havasupai Tribe.
Although the team does not currently have plans to increase staff, the additional space will allow them to host interns and other trainees interested in the field.
County representatives agreed the space is a significant improvement.
“It was kind of depressing, embarrassing for how dated the facility was, what our staff had to work with,” Supervisor Matt Ryan said.
Some of the department’s newer equipment, though, such as a portable x-ray system and medical grade storage cabinets, will be transferred to the new facility.
Due to the circumstances that typically bring individuals and families to the Medical Examiner’s Office, the new building is designed to be comforting.
“This facility really allows for a breath to be taken in really incredibly intense circumstances,” said Art Babbott, chairman of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors.
A path through a small garden featuring rock, wood, wind and water elements leads to the public entrance, and the lobby is washed in a warm orange paint.
Employee well-being, too, was a priority in the building’s design. Near to the office spaces is a “wellness room” illuminated with sunlight and natural colors. The room is filled with well-cushioned wood furniture and wall space for a game of ring-toss. Employees can also step outside to a small porch.
The morning of the ribbon cutting ceremony, a Navajo blessing was performed over the facility for similar reasons.
“The blessing was done for each and every one of you and for those who are going to be visiting here, so they can enter the building and this property... and be able to handle, with greater strength, what they are having to deal with,” Supervisor Lena Fowler said to ceremony attendees.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at email@example.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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