May 6, 2013

Local agency keeps a close eye on child car seat safety

By Mitch Talley Whitfield County Director of Communications

— About three years ago, Dalton Safe Kids checked the car seats in a 15-passenger van full of  moms and their kids.

The certified car seat technicians discovered the seats were unsafe and replaced them with five brand new ones. A few days later, the van was involved in a head-on collision on Waugh Street, but all the passengers escaped unharmed.

“Did those seats make the difference?” said Lt. Chris West of the Whitfield County Fire Department, lead agency for the Dalton Safe Kids program. “Who knows? It’s like I say about fire safety. Has it made a difference we’ve taught fire safety for 11 years and stressed how important it is? I don’t know. Do we have a lot of kids playing with lighters and fire? No. So has it made a difference? We seem to think it has. Has it made a difference in Whitfield County that we’ve been checking all these car seats? We seem to think it has because we have fewer injuries reported from children involved in crashes than we did before.”

West and fellow Whitfield County firefighter Nathan Callaway lead a growing group of Dalton and Whitfield County public safety workers who have undergone four days of intense training to become certified to check car seats. The latest such inspection effort came April 13 in the parking lot of the local Kohl’s store, where 31 seats were checked.

“We changed out 11 of those seats that were being misused in some form or fashion,” West said, “whether it be the wrong size seat for the child, way out-of-date seats, or damaged seats. We had one seat that had been involved in a crash, and the lady just didn’t know, plus the seat was out of date. Most people don’t know that when a seat has been in a crash, they recommend that you throw that seat away because of the strain and stretching on the webbing.”

The goal of Dalton Safe Kids is to make life safer for as many children as possible, so that’s why the agency — during April 16-19 — held car seat certification training in Murray County, which previously had just four certified technicians.

“We certified 16 new technicians, one of which was a member of the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office,” West said. “Two were from Gilmer County, and the other 13 were from Murray County agencies,” five from the sheriff’s office, two from the police department, two from Chatsworth Fire, three from Murray County Fire and one from Murray EMS.

“Our plan is to go back in the fall and teach another class there,” he said, “and put 15 to 20 more students through it. Murray County is wanting to build up a supply of techs and start having car seat check events over there. So we’re going to continue to go help our neighbors across the river and try to get them certified, and we’re in the process of holding classes in Gordon County, too.”

The goal, he says, is “to continue to keep people safe in Whitfield County, provide education to our Whitfield County residents, and in the meanwhile branch out and help Murray, Gordon and Catoosa, our neighbors, get certified techs so they’ll have the opportunity to do the same.”

Such an attitude has already paid off for Whitfield County, where the number of certified technicians has climbed to 64 from about 20 in 2011 (when Whitfield County Fire took over as the lead agency).

There’s more to checking a car seat than just a cursory glance, West points out.

“It’s a four-day class to train public safety personnel to check the seats,” he said. “Even the guys that go through our classes at first think how can it take four days to teach you how to put in a car seat. But at the end of the training, they’re like ‘Man, we need more time!’ because there’s just so much to talk about.”

For example, technicians learn about the different styles of seat belts found inside vehicles, as well as how to identify how that belt’s supposed to be used on each kind of seat, how to tell which child goes in what seat, how to recognize if a seat’s been involved in a crash or if it’s been damaged in any way, if it’s out of date, if it’s been recalled, and more.

“The biggest thing we want to do,” West says, “is to make sure that child is in the proper seat, in the right way, and that the seat is put in the car correctly.”

At check events — which are held in the spring and fall by Safe Kids Dalton, as well as during other special safety events throughout the year sponsored by other agencies — technicians will inform caregivers if they need a new seat.

“People are welcome to go buy one, and we’ll have a certified tech install it for them,” West said. “If they can’t afford one, we keep seats with us at the check events. What we ask in return is if people can make a donation to Safe Kids for at least half of the cost we paid for the seat. That way we’ll have the money to be able to turn around and buy more seats.”

He expressed thanks to the Roman Open, a charity golf tournament that has been a big supporter of Safe Kids Dalton and donated $3,000 last year to buy car seats.

At the car seat inspection events, an average of two technicians check out each seat.

“There’s a lot of forms we have to fill out to keep records of what we did,” West said. “We probably average about 25 to 30 minutes to do a good seat check. It’s not just come by and look at it and say ‘Yeah, it’s good.’ I mean, we always take the seat out, we make sure the belts are in the right location on the seat, we make sure the seat’s up to date, we check it for recalls, we ask questions about the seat, and we make sure the child’s in it properly and in the right location so it takes a little bit of time.”

Since 2011, there is “no telling” how many car seats have been checked at such events, West said.

“We’ve crushed probably close to 500 seats since then,” he said, “and that’s just seats we’ve taken off the road that were bad. I’m going to say our techs have laid their hands on and looked at anywhere from 750 to 1,000 car seats in just 2 1/2 years. We have swapped out close to 400 or 500 car seats in this county — with no taxpayer funding whatsoever. This has all been done through private donations and a little bit of grant money.”

Their work will never be done since there is a constant crop of new kids using car seats, he pointed out.

“We need businesses and individuals to donate to help us if any way possible,” he said, “because every bit of that money goes right back into buying more car seats. We always like to have new car seats at these events because when a child comes through and is in a seat that’s not safe, we try our best to make sure they leave that parking lot with a seat that’s safe.”

If you’d like to help the program, you can make a donation by calling West at (706) 259-7433.

Dalton Safe Kids, since going under the guidance of the Whitfield County Fire Department, doesn’t just focus on car seat safety, however.

“It’s not just child safety seats,” West said. “It’s fire prevention, it’s poison prevention, it’s bicycle safety, helmets, it’s water safety, pedestrian safety. The main focus is on car seats, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing we do — it’s just one of many.”

They continue to hold safety events because their goal is to keep kids safe.

“And we’ll continue to do it,” Callaway said, “because of the misuse of seats we see at these events. It’s major.”

West adds that “every time we have a new event, we think there can’t be any that will show up today. But we’re wrong. Every time, there’s always four or five car seats that come through, that you’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness, how in the world has this kid made it through this all right?’ If they had been involved in a car crash, it could have been awful.”

Part of the problem is passing down car seats from generation to generation, or buying an old one at a yard sale or flea market, West said.

“A lot of people don’t know that a car seat has a manufacture date on it,” he said, “and some seats actually have an expiration date, too. And if it doesn’t have an expiration date, after six years, the recommendation is that a car seat should be replaced, that it’s not used again. But we get them come through the events that are 12, 14, 16, 18 years old.

“People mean well passing them down,” West said, “but when you think about it, what’s better? Spending 75 or 80 bucks for a car seat and your kid being safe, or taking a chance buying a $20 car seat at a resale shop?”

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 If you can’t make it to one of the car seat inspection events held during the year, Dalton Safe Kids officials say you are always welcome to stop by the Dalton Fire Department Station 1, where a certified technician is usually on duty and can check your car seat. You can also call the Whitfield County Fire Department at (706) 259-7433 to find a station where a certified technician is working that day.