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See a Child Alone in a Car? Speak Up

April 21, 2014

It was a muggy June afternoon in 2010 when Christine Spriggs, a nutrition assistant at the Floyd County Health Department, parked her pickup truck at the grocery store. Turning to open the door, she noticed two children sitting alone inside the car next to hers. Immediately, she was nervous.

Christine Spriggs said calling 911 about two children left alone in a car was one of the most important calls she's made.

“It was overcast, not really a bright sunny day, but it was rather warm,” she said. “It was definitely hot enough to be dangerous.”

Spriggs knew from training she’d received at the health department that it doesn’t take much heat to make the inside of a car deadly for a child. Even cool outdoor temperatures in the 60s can cause the temperature inside a car to rise well above 110 degrees. The inside temperature can rise almost 20 degrees within just 10 minutes. Those kinds of temperatures can cause heatstroke, which can be deadly.

Spriggs said she decided to wait for the owner of the car to return to make sure the children were safe. After 10 minutes, the owner was nowhere in sight. She decided to call the police.

“I did think twice because I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble. I didn’t want to be the bad guy. But then I thought well, I’m the bad guy if I don’t make the call,” she said.

Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), said that’s just what state officials want Georgians to do when they spot children left unattended in a car.

“If you see a child left alone in a car, call 911 immediately,” Fitzgerald said at a press conference last year. “I can tell you that every first responder will tell you that they’d rather respond to a false alarm than to lose a child because someone didn’t think to do anything.”

A child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s. That means children can quickly fall victim to hyperthermia, a deadly condition also called heat stroke in which an abnormally high body temperature causes the body to shut down. Fitzgerald noted that because many children are not developmentally capable of operating a car’s buttons or levers, leaving them inside a vehicle means they are trapped.

This year, Safe Kids Worldwide, an organization that works to prevent child injuries, is renewing its campaign urging adults to ACT: avoid heatstroke, create reminders to make sure you don’t leave a child in a vehicle and take action if you see a child alone in a car. In a busy, multitasking world, it’s possible that even the best parents can accidentally leave their child alone in a car, but Safe Kids says it’s important to create the kinds of communities where adults are vigilant in protecting children from the dangers of hot cars.

According to federal statistics, a child dies about once every 10 days from being left alone in a hot car. Between 1998 and 2012, 20 Georgia children died of heatstroke after being left unattended or climbing in a hot car to play.

Reports of children being left alone in cars is on the rise. The Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning investigated 17 of these incidents in 2013; so far in 2014, they have already investigated 18. Though the numbers are alarming, officials say they may reflect something good – that more people like Spriggs are taking action to prevent children from dying of heatstroke.

The children’s mother came back and drove the children away before the police arrived. Spriggs said she’s still glad she made the call.

“You just have to take a chance and call 911 and let them assess the situation,” she said. “You could be saving a life.”

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