Every summer across the nation, unfortunate stories are shared of parents leaving children or pets in the car, with results varying from good Samaritans smashing windows or, in the worst cases, innocent lives lost.
As careful as a person may be, a tragedy can happen to anyone at any time, according to Forsyth County Fire Department Division Chief Jason Shivers.
“Often, parents and caregivers fall victim to the complacency factor, where they think it’s not that hot out and the [child or pet] will be OK for a few minutes,” Shivers said. “But even on an 80 degree day, the temperature inside a car rises to a deadly level in 10 minutes, and every degree higher, that time reduces dramatically.
“Especially for those of us who are used to living in the Georgia heat in the summertime, on a nice, comfortable 80 degree day, you might not think of the dangers hot cars present. But they’re there.”
According to the website kidsandcars.org, a national safety organization that works to prevent vehicular child deaths, on average, 37 children die annually from car-related heatstroke.
In 2016, that count was 39, up 14 from 2015.
Shivers said while adults, too, should not remain in a hot car, the situation is more dangerous for children.
“A child’s body temperature heats up three times faster than an adult’s,” he said. “Their core body temperature is [higher], so they are much more susceptible to hyperthermia than adults.
“A young child should never be left alone period, but you also don’t have any assurance, even with the air conditioning on, that the vehicle will stay running. An automobile engine is subjected to extreme strain from high temperatures and can fail and turn off unexpectedly.”
In addition, many children — young ones, especially — don’t know how or are unable to unlock and open a door. This is especially true for children strapped into car seats.
“As so often has been the case, every year, we witness this being a nationwide issue that has become more aggravated because people’s lives are busier and there are more things to keep them occupied, so they have less time to think about the child,” Shivers said. “One good way [to prevent] this is to put something in the back seat next to child that you absolutely need to have on you that will make sure you’ll have to go to the back door of the vehicle to retrieve the item.
“Tragedies often happen when parents or caregivers are taking a child to daycare or school but fall into their normal routine of going into work, accidentally leaving a kid in the vehicle defenseless. Developing a habit with a spouse or loved one to every day ask if the child was dropped off can create some checks and balances for someone.”
An item as small as a stuffed animal can save a child’s life.
“Put a stuffed animal or teddy bear in the car seat or car seat base when it’s unoccupied,” he said. “When you bring the child out and place them in car seat, move the stuffed animal up to front seat next to driver, somewhere near you, [to serve] as another reminder.
Despite these precautions, Shivers said if a passerby sees a child left in a car with no obvious adult around, he or she should immediately call 911.
“As you’re dialing, try the door handles and see if any will open and help rescue the child,” he said. “If an adult comes out [after you’ve called 911], we can always turn around, but always get 911 and the fire department en-route.”
On almost all Forsyth County fire trucks, firefighters have kits to make access to most vehicles with minimal or no damage.
Sometimes, though, the kit doesn’t work or first responders do not have enough time, in which case county firefighters “don’t hesitate to break a window.”
“We see a life as a life,” Shivers said. “Whether it’s a child or a pet, we will respond to get them out of that vehicle. Getting a kid to safety is the most critical concern.
“However, we can only access vehicles for those [life-saving] instances, and we can’t access a car just because you’ve locked your key in there. Please don’t [tie up] 911 with those requests.”