Miami-Dade County Is Tackling Carbon Pollution At An Unlikely Place: The Morgue

Sep 12, 2019

Miami-Dade County’s morgue sits on a gritty corner opposite the Ryder Trauma Center, in the shadow of a boxy parking garage.

It’s not an unsurprising setting for cataloguing the worst of South Florida. What’s unexpected is inside: a skylight bathes the lobby in sunshine and makes the green carpet look like a forest floor. Loveseats and chairs are arranged for hushed conversations and hugs. A painting of a heron perched in a cypress swamp hangs on a wall outside the records room.

“Unfortunately, people come visit on the worst day of their lives,” said Darren Caprara, the morgue’s director of operations. “We really wanted a living room setting.”

The sensitive design was the work of former Medical Examiner Joseph Davis, who ran the morgue for more than four decades and helped pioneer modern forensics. The morgue has now become the setting for something else: energy efficiency in the age of climate change.

The 1980s-era complex was among five buildings selected by the county’s resiliency staff for a complete energy retrofit last year. Incandescent lights in the toxicology lab, hallways, waiting areas and operating rooms were swapped for bright LED lights. A massive air-conditioning system that keeps surgical suites below 60 degrees and coolers at 40 degrees was automated. The boiler was replaced and water systems upgraded.

Altogether, the county spent about $840,000 on the buildings, which also include the courthouse and Government Center. Cuts to carbon emissions are expected to total 5,271 tons a year - about the same as removing 1,112 cars from roads annually.

The changes follow a growing trend nationwide to more closely scrutinize the carbon generated by inefficient buildings. Buildings typically waste about 30 percent of their energy. And that waste can quickly add up. Across the planet, building is waste is blamed for about 30 percent of carbon pollution, according to a 2017 United Nations report. In Miami-Dade County, they generate 37 percent.

In April, New York City passed laws requiring buildings over 25,000 square feet to cut emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. Utilities in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and dozens of other cities across the U.S. have agreed to switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2032.

Miami-Dade County is taking a less aggressive approach. Rather than regulate resiliency, it’s retrofitting some of its own buildings and hoping to lead by example. It’s a policy that continues to put the region at the bottom of efficiency rankings: The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranked Miami 55th this year.

“We think information drives a lot of this, just like it does for consumers when they buy a car. They’re comparing,” said Miami-Dade Resiliency Chief James Murley. “Once that becomes a practice, then it's in the best interest of the owner of the buildings to be able to market their building versus other buildings.”

The county has identified 12,000 buildings over 20,000 square-feet across that represent 43 percent of the county’s total indoor square footage. If the county can convince private property owners to upgrade, the county’s carbon footprint could be cut by tons and savings could range from $638 million to $7 billion, according to an economic analysis performed by the county.

“We have a large stock of existing buildings,” said sustainability manager Patricia Gomez. “So we see a huge potential to solve a problem.”

And it’s easy to see just how much energy can get wasted in the morgue. The three-building complex opened in 1988, the same year the United Nations formed the International Panel on Climate Change. At the time, Miami was in the grip of the nation’s drug war, ruled by cocaine cowboys and breaking homicide records.

So Davis likely had another kind of efficiency in mind. 

Davis took over the job in 1957, after the county’s first ME died suddenly, and just two years after it was opened. The morgue was initially housed in the ambulance garage of a funeral home before moving to the Laboratory Animal House at Jackson Memorial Hospital where rabbits and guinea pigs were stashed for pregnancy and tuberculosis testing.

We “moved the animals down to one corner, and in a very tiny area set up a morgue, office and laboratory,” Davis said in a 1999 lecture. “If I wanted to leave my desk, I had to get up and walk over the desk because there was no room to walk around the desk.”

Over the years, Davis had helped transform pathology, modernizing toxicology and using the office to help set public health policy. He called it the epidemiology of violence.

Because of Davis, car-crunching guard rails at I-95 exit ramps were replaced with barrels of sand after he investigated a series of traffic fatalities. Pool drains have mesh covers because of his findings from a child’s drowning. He also helped orchestrate laws that require drunk driving suspects to submit to blood alcohol tests and, after a series of child poisonings, limits on organophosphate fertilizer use.

Davis divided functions among three buildings: autopsies and the toxicology lab in one building, administrative duties where families were met and 160,000 records housed in another, and hazardous materials in a third.

The buildings are separated by outdoors stairs and breezeways - that open to Miami’s steamy heat - with differing temperature needs in each.

“The first thing you’ll notice is temperature-wise we like to keep it somewhere around high 50s, low 60,” Caprara said as he led a tour of the surgical suites where doctors were performing an autopsy on a bearded man. “Everyone’s first thought is that’s because bodies need to be cold. That’s what I see on TV.”

It's not. The chill instead keeps doctors wearing heavy protective gear more comfortable during autopsies that can sometimes take several hours, he said.

“On TV morgues are dark and blue, it appears like they don't use any energy at all. That's ridiculous,” Caprara said. “Our work has to be big and bright, so the doctors can see what they're doing.”

Four walk-in coolers - one is lined with gurneys holding bodies in white bags - sit around the corner from the surgical suites. The morgue can hold up to 450, Caprara said. But usually the number hovers around 100 to ensure space in case of an emergency. In 1981, Davis was forced to rent a refrigerated truck from Burger King to store bodies after the homicide rate climbed over 600.

The new automated AC system is equipped with alarms to alert staff remotely if the temperature ever rises, which could endanger not just the condition of bodies, but potential evidence.

Upstairs in the toxicology lab, gas chromatographs separate chemicals from blood. The process itself is time-consuming, taking a day or more just to treat blood. If the power goes out, even for a minute, Caprara said it can take up to two days to reset the machines. There are also computers for the office’s 87 employees, and a server room that needs to stay cool.

“Every building has different requirements in different areas,” Gomez said. “You really need to know your building, so that you make sure that why you are implementing is really what is needed.”

Since the changes were made, Caprara said operations have run more smoothly.

“We're in a business where we can't have a day without water or even a day without hot water,” he said. “If there's a fluctuation in the air temperature or the humidity of the air, things can get really wet. Or we can have conditions that aren't conducive to doing surgery, which is what happens in the room. So sometimes it's not just noticing a difference, it's not noticing that things are breaking.”

Most of the improvements can by easily applied to other buildings, Gomez said, whether it’s improved efficiency in the air-conditioning, better seals on windows or door, or improved plumbing to reduce water use. She said savings from improved operations should pay for the changes, so owners plot out how they overhaul buildings.

“The idea is that people are going to be able to tackle those things that have a very quick payback, that are simple to implement,” she said. “And they are going to see the reductions in energy and water consumption in a short period of time."

The morgue seemed like a good place to start because while the changes can be easily applied, operations also need to be reliable to handle about 2,400 autopsies each year.

“We are a 24-seven operation,” Caprara said. “Unfortunately, death never stops.”