The Hennepin County medical examiner’s office, which also serves Dakota and Scott counties, plans to open a satellite office in Apple Valley Aug. 1 to see if case response times are faster from the suburban location.

“One of the things we are really focused on is customer service,” said Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker. “We want to be as responsive as we can to families, law enforcement agencies and funeral homes.

“When we look at the geography we are now covering we think it would make sense to put one person in a satellite office. That person could respond more quickly to death scenes in that part of the tri-county area.”

Scott and Dakota counties began using the services of the Hennepin County morgue and medical examiner on Jan. 1 as a way to cut costs. Baker said the new operation is going “really, really well,” with strong support from administrative and law enforcement officials.

The satellite office will be in spare space in Dakota County’s Western Service Center in Apple Valley.

The medical examiner is called about every death in the three counties. “If you die outside of a hospital your death needs to be reported to the medical examiner for examination,” Baker said.

If a person dies at home and there is no evidence of crime or trauma, it’s unlikely the examiner’s office will investigate the scene. But if the death is unnatural or the person dies alone, an investigator would be sent to the scene, Baker said. That is where response time comes in.

“We may have a family or law enforcement official waiting at the scene of death or a funeral home may be waiting for the medical examiner to find out if they can come to the scene and pick up the body.”

Response times to death scenes have been recorded for the first six months of this year and Baker plans a six-month test with the satellite office to see if response times improve.

“Insofar as I know we are not receiving feedback about response times being any slower than they would have been in the past … but that does not mean that we can’t still make them shorter,” Baker said. “Even when our customers are satisfied, we still gain internal efficiencies and save money by having employees spending less time … traveling to scenes and more time taking care of business. So that’s also a good incentive to craft the most efficient model.”

The office also uses some on-call investigators in addition to staff investigators to cover the area, Baker said.

“We do not want our proximity to the upcoming [Minnesota Vikings] stadium construction to adversely affect our ability to service all of our customers. When you throw that into the mix, along with the vagaries of traffic and weather, we want to make sure we have optimal plans in place such that our customers do not feel a decrease in service.”

During the six-month test of the satellite office, Dakota County will not charge Hennepin County for the office space. Using a wireless laptop computer, the satellite investigator will be able to enter case notes, read case files and X-rays, and field phone calls just as easily as from the downtown office, Baker said.

Scott and Dakota counties were previously served by the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner, which was a consortium of eight counties based in Hastings. Hennepin absorbed Dakota and Scott counties, and the other counties made other arrangements.

“We are now operating what used to be two offices under two roofs as one office under one roof,” Baker said. It will take time to calculate savings, but “so far we are well within the budget agreed upon by Hennepin and Dakota counties,” Baker said.

“Also, as a regional center we have opened our doors to coroners in Minnesota [and even Wisconsin] to take their forensic cases upon request. To the extent that they send us cases and we then bill for them, we can further offset property tax support for our office with those revenues.”