N.C. firefighters halt child seat checks

By Josh Shaffer
The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Firefighters in Raleigh have stopped checking and installing child safety seats, forcing new parents who live in the city to scramble for help with the tricky devices.

Fire Chief John McGrath asked the City Council for permission to stop the program last fall, calling it burdensome and time-consuming. At the time, the safety checks were cut back from 18 to five stations.

But Raleigh's fire crews are no longer qualified for safety seat checks because their certifications have lapsed, a situation McGrath said likely will not change before the fall.

"To keep people trained, it's onerous," McGrath said.

The state Department of Insurance runs the Safe Kids North Carolina program, which certifies technicians and provides training for the installation of child safety seats.

In addition, the state Highway Patrol runs its Buckle-In-Baby Safely program. Trained troopers in the program will show people the correct way to install a safety seat, Lt. Everett Clendenin said. Troopers will help parents with a first-time installation and make sure they know how to repeat the process, Clendenin said.

Rex Hospital will install seats for new parents who are patients there, said Kristin Milam, an Insurance Department spokeswoman. But without the fire department, Raleigh has no full-time technicians.

"We're sad to hear that they're not continuing that," Milam said. "It saves lives."

Fire stations in Morrisville and Fuquay-Varina will still install and check seats daily, as will Apex on Saturdays.

"They're a lot smaller departments," McGrath said. "They don't have the high-rises."

In Durham, the EMS station does safety seat work Wednesdays and Saturdays by appointment.

Improper use of seats

A 2003 federal study showed that 72 percent of all child safety seats were used improperly and recommended wide availability of inspection stations.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ranks seats for ease of use and clarity of instructions, giving them a rating of one to five stars. The agency also recommends getting all seats checked by a safety technician.

The Safe Kids program requires that technicians be certified each year, a process that can take five to 60 days.

McGrath called the safety seat work an unfunded mandate and said the Raleigh department let its certifications lapse to keep staff on firefighting duties.

He added that a class of 30 graduating cadets is coming through soon and that he hopes the increased numbers will allow him to revive the city's child safety seat program in the fall.

Meanwhile, the NHTSA reports that safety seat use climbed to 89 percent in 2007 among children newborn to 7.

Failure to comply with safety and booster seat laws in North Carolina can result in a penalty of two driver's license points, a $25 fine and court costs.

"Beyond the time and the tickets you can get, it's a preventable tragedy," Milam said.

Copyright 2008 The News and Observer

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