On Sept. 25, 2012, a 6-month-old baby girl was found dead in a car where she had accidentally been left for as long as nine hours. The discovery was made at 5:45 p.m. at Doral Academy Preparatory School in West Miami-Dade, Fla. Police said the father was supposed to have dropped her off at a daycare center about 9 a.m., but forgot she was in the car and went about his day. The baby’s father told detectives it was not part of his routine to care for the baby.1
This is the most recent of the 61 recorded heat-stroke death incidents that have occurred in Florida since 1998.2 These deaths began to occur more frequently after 1998 when the federal government mandated all automakers to install driver and passenger air bags for frontal impact protection, which then required all children to be placed in the rear seat in a properly restrained child seat.3 Across the U.S., 559 juvenile vehicular hyperthermia deaths have occurred since 1998 due to children being left inside hot vehicles, with an average of 38 deaths per year.4 As a result of these incidents, Florida is one of 19 states that have passed laws that address leaving a child unattended in a vehicle. Florida Statute 316.6135 states that no child younger than 6 years of age shall be left unattended in a vehicle in excess of 15 minutes, or for any period of time if the vehicle is left running or the health of the child is in danger.5 Violation of the statute can result in non-criminal traffic infractions, with fines ranging from $50–500. Currently, Utah is the only state that has this as a criminal offense.
With these alarming trends, fire and EMS organizations must stop being solely reactionary and begin taking a proactive approach within their respective communities in an effort to reduce these preventable deaths from occurring.
Do Your Research
In order to establish an effective awareness program, you should first find out what is causing the problem and then address how to resolve it. In early 2012, an applied research project for the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy evolved into an active, well-received awareness program in the city of Pompano Beach, Fla.6
Fire-EMS incidents involving children locked in vehicles within the city of Pompano Beach were tracked—from May through October—to determine cause and outcome. Amazingly, the researchers found that nearly 50% of the incidents occurred in Pompano Beach due to the caregivers forgetting the child was in the back seat. Luckily, in these cases, the caregivers realized moments later and no serious death or injury occurred during the research period. The city’s first and only hyperthermia death caused by the child being left unattended happened in April 2003.
A five-question random survey was conducted during the research period to determine the cause of caregivers leaving children unattended inside vehicles and also to gauge the current awareness of the dangers. A total of 400 surveys were completed. The surveys were conducted during child safety seat events, local charity events, and at day cares and schools within the city.
The first question asked participants if they have ever left their child unattended inside the car. Surprisingly, 62.8% answered “yes.” The next question asked participants if there were any laws in Florida making it illegal to leave a child unattended inside of a vehicle. The majority (63.0%) acknowledged being aware of such a law in Florida. Another revealing question asked participants what they felt was the number one reason for leaving a child unattended inside of a car. In all, 45.7% said running into the store was the number one reason for leaving a child unattended inside a car, and only 13.1% of the participants thought forgetting the child was the reason for leaving a child inside of car.
What makes these responses so revealing is that of the 559 deaths, 52% of them occurred because the child was forgotten by the caregiver.4 Another interesting fact to point out is that there’s no particular high-risk group in this case. These preventable deaths have occurred in all socio-economic groups, races and religions. No one is immune to the fast-paced, multi-tasked society of today. With multiple jobs and both parents being employed to make ends meet, life seems to be a constant juggling act that is one mental mistake away from tragedy.
One could draw the conclusion that caregivers don’t want to intentionally harm their children and are also in denial that something so terrible could ever happen to them. So then the question is: “How can someone forget their child inside of a car?”
During a WVTI television news segment in 2010, it was explained that when people are overly stressed, they can get distracted by their problems, especially if there’s a break in their normal routine. The segment goes on to explain how the basal ganglia in the human brain can power people through the regular routines, and any change in the routine can easily be dropped from the thought process.7
Recent psychological research shows that most people were able to only hold four items in active memory, and when new items enter, the older items are forgotten.8
With the largest cause of infant hyperthermia being that caregivers forget children in vehicles, several non-profit organizations have taken action and have begun awareness campaigns. These organizations include Safe Kids Worldwide, Kids and Cars, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, as well as Jan Null with Golden Gate Weather Services.
It’s now time for fire and EMS agencies across the nation to get involved in raising awareness about the dangers of leaving children inside hot vehicles.
Pompano’s Awareness Program
Pompano Beach Fire Rescue has embarked on the “No Child Locked Inside: Creating awareness of the dangers of leaving children in hot vehicles” awareness program. The Action Plan provides established goals, objectives and tasks that must be completed to assure a successful awareness program and see a reduction in injury and death of children.
Although new, the program has been well received by citizens who have had exposure to the surveys and handouts. Many who were surprised by the statistics and unaware of the grim realities of what has occurred over the past 14 years have expressed appreciation for the newfound awareness.
I recently had the honor of being awarded the Nicholas Rosecrans Award at the 2013 EMS Today Conference & Exposition in Washington D.C. for the conducted research and awareness program. I had the opportunity to present our research and program to EMS professionals from across the country during the conference. The feedback was positive, which gave reassurance that we are on the right track to reducing death and injury of the innocent children.
The hope is that by sharing our research, experience and awareness program, you will take a comprehensive look at your own communities and, if warranted, take a proactive approach to community risk reduction by establishing your own awareness program and help spread the word to leave No Child Locked Inside.
The complete applied research project can be found at www.lrc.fema.gov/efop.html and searching either “No Child Locked Inside: Creating Awareness About the Dangers of Leaving Children in Hot Vehicles” or “Jorge Rossi.” Send any questions via email to Jorge.Rossi@copbfl.com.
Pompano Beach Fire Rescue
No Child Locked Inside Action Plan
Pompano Beach Fire Rescue is to be the safest mid-size city in Florida
Pompano Beach Fire Rescue doesn’t have a program to remind drivers the child is being left inside of the vehicle.
Reduce death and injury of children locked inside of vehicles through education, law enforcement, future engineering, and continued emergency response when called on.
Final Outcome Objectives
I. Reduced responses: Have a 50 % reduction in fire department responses to children being locked in vehicles in Pompano Beach by Oct 31, 2013.
II. Increased awareness: Have a “No Child Locked Inside” sticker (See Figure 6, p. XX) placed at the entrance to all street front businesses in Pompano Beach by Dec 31, 2013.
III. Continued outreach: Provide “No Child Locked Inside” educational & awareness handouts (See Figure 7, p. XX) to 20, 000 Pompano Beach residents by Dec 31, 2013.
Our Process Objectives
I. Objective I will be accomplished through:
a. Establishing a 501(c)(3) for donations if one is not in place.
b. Educating through local news media, newspapers, community wide events, public service announcements and the city’s Web site.
c. Enforcing of Florida Statue 316.6135 by local police enforcement.
II. Objective II will be accomplished by:
a. Seeking approval by city commissioners to pass an ordinance for all street front businesses to place a “No Child Locked Inside” sticker at the entrance.
b. Going door-to-door and requesting storeowners to place a “No Child Locked Inside” sticker at the entrance.
III. Objective III will be accomplished by:
a. Attending community events and passing out No Child Locked Inside Handouts.
b. Providing handouts during all car seat events hosted by Pompano Beach Fire Rescue and teaching safety tips/ reminders (See Figures 8–10).
c. Publishing the handouts in the city newspaper and magazine every quarter.
d. Posting the handout on the city website.
1. Edgerton A, Sanchez M. (Sept. 26, 2012). Change of dad’s routine led to baby’s death in car. In Miami Herald. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from www.miamiherald.com/2012/09/25/3021236/baby-dies-after-being-left-in.html#storylink=cpy.
2. Hyperthermia Deaths of Children in Vehicles. (n.d.) In Department of Geosciences, San Francisco State University. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from www.ggweather.com/heat/per_capita.htm.
3. Q&A: Airbags. (n.d.) In Highway Safety Research & Communications. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from www.iihs.org/research/qanda/airbags.aspx.
4. Null, J. (May 17, 2013). Hyperthermia deaths of children in vehicles. In Department of Geosciences, San Francisco State University. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from www.ggweather.com/heat/index.htm.
5. What Florida Law says about ... leaving children unattended in a motor vehicle (n.d.) In Florida Highway Patrol. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from www.flhsmv.gov/fhp/misc/Floridalaw/fllaw.htm.
6. Executive Fire Officer Program. (n.d.) In U.S. Fire Administration. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/efop/index.shtm.
7. Edwards, T. (March 24, 2010). The dangers of the “parenting routine.” In 6 ABC Action News. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/parenting&id=7348303.
8. Nauert, R. (July 12, 2007). Short-term memory capacity for most: 4 items. In Psych Central. Retrieved May 22, 2013, from