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Official: Hot-car deaths 'very easy to prevent'

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Technology that now comes in certain vehicles will display a warning on the dashboard if something, or someone like a young child, is left in the back seat.

PALM HARBOR — According to official statistics, more than 800 children have died after being left in a hot car in the last 20 years, including 52 nationwide in 2018, a record no one wants to see eclipsed.

In order to help reverse this disturbing trend, representatives of several local and state agencies, including the Florida Department of Children and Families, Suncoast Safe Kids Coalition, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and local fire departments, held a press conference and demonstration on April 17 at Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Station 65.

With a car attached to a thermometer serving as a backdrop, Suncoast Safe Kids Supervisor Petra Vybiralova spoke about the tragic topic that is especially prevalent here in the Sunshine State.

“In Florida, we experience more heat than most states in the U.S.,” Vybiralova said, noting heatstroke deaths have been recorded in every month of the year in nearly every state. “Young children are particularly at risk because they heat up fast without the ability to cool down.”

She said temperatures inside a locked vehicle can rise 90 degrees in 10 minutes, even on a mild day, and pointed to the car-thermometer setup, which showed a reading of 78.8 degrees outdoors and 143 degrees inside the vehicle.

“Symptoms quickly progress until organ failure and then death when their body temperature reaches 107 degrees,” Vybiralova said, adding that cracking a window does not help slow the heating process or decrease the maximum temperature inside the vehicle. She highlighted stats that show 54 percent of children who died from hot-car related heatstroke were mistakenly left in the vehicle by a family mem-ber or caregiver.

“Heatstroke mostly happens on Thursday and Friday,” Vybiralova said. “When families are more tired, they’re more susceptible to tragedy.”

Despite the sobering statistics, officials presented some simple tips and solutions for preventing these types of tragedies from occurring.

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Petra Vybiralova of the Suncoast Safe Kids Coalition and Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Craig Maciuba in front of a sign that displays the temperature inside and outside a parked vehicle. The interior temperature can reach a potentially fatal level, even on a mild day, safety officials say. The demonstration was part of a multiagency campaign to curtail hot-car deaths staged April 17 at Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Station 65.

“So, what can you do?” Vybiralova asked. “First and foremost, avoid leaving children in vehicles at all costs, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Also, put a reminder in the back seat, like your cell phone or a shoe, something you will need when you get out. I’ve even seen someone put a rubber band on the back-door handle to remind them their kid is back there.”

Vybiralova also said there are apps and GPS settings for child reminders, as well as new technology that comes installed in certain vehicles straight from the factory.

“The new technology displays an alert to the driver to check the back seat,” East Lake Fire Rescue spokesperson Claudio Raiola explained while Palm Harbor Fire Rescue public information officer Eliza-beth Graham displayed the technology installed in one of the department’s Chevy Tahoes.

Palm Harbor Fire Rescue personnel know all too well the dangers of leaving a child in a hot car.

In September 2016, PHFR responded to the scene of 23-month-old Lawson Whitaker’s death.

The toddler’s father, Troy Whitaker, a Hillsborough County firefighter, said he inadvertently left his son in his pickup truck for eight hours, according to news reports of the incident. According to Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, “The child’s body temperature at about 5 o’clock was about 108 degrees.”

While Palm Harbor fire officials didn’t speak about the Whitaker tragedy out of respect for the family and the first responders, Deputy Chief Craig Maciuba said the first course of action when you see a child in a locked car is to call 9-1-1.

“First, please call 9-1-1 so we can get the pet or person out of the car,” Maciuba said. “We have specialized tools that allow us to get into the vehicle without damaging it, if possible. We also contact law enforcement, we call locksmiths. We have multiple ways and multiple partners to get the victim out as quickly as possible.”

The Department of Children and Families’ regional managing director, Lisa Mayrose, capped off the event with a simple but stark note.

“In the past 10 years in Florida, 88 children have perished in hot cars,” Mayrose said. “That’s five kindergarten classrooms, and that’s why we’re here today. It’s very bad news but the good news is it’s 100 percent preventable by listening to these tips we provided today so we can prevent these tragedies from occurring in the future.”

After the demonstration, Vybiralova reiterated the need to remain vigilant.

“For me, it’s heartbreaking because these incidents are 100 percent preventable,” she said. “The families it happens to tend not to be negligent, they tend to be distracted parents. That’s why we focus on preventing these tragedies from occurring by creating simple reminders and taking the time to be vigilant. It is a major issue here in the state of Florida and it’s something to stay vigilant about all year long.”