Like many of you, I spend a lot of time on various social media sites dedicated to car seats. When a parent says she’s taking her car seat to be checked at a police or fire station, inevitably she will get the following two statements in return:
“Not all firefighters or police officers are technicians, so make sure you get someone certified.”
“Be careful. A lot of firefighters/police officers who are technicians aren’t very good ones.”
The first comment is true. Most firefighters and police officers are not CPSTs, so it’s important to seek out people who are certified. (Check Safe Kids database and the list at car-seat.org.) A random police officer might be more than happy to help install a seat, but without the proper training, he or she may do more harm than good.
But what about the second statement, that firefighters and police officers often aren’t “good” technicians? Is there any truth in that statement? The answer is very complex.
I have worked with many, many excellent technicians who are firefighters or police officers. But I have also had many parents come to me after receiving bad (or even dangerous) advice from public safety CPSTs. Why is this?
Although most firefighters and police officers aren’t techs, a good chunk of techs are firefighters or police officers. That means that if someone’s had a bad experience, it was likely that they had a public-safety tech simply because that was their only option. (If thousands of plumbers were trained as CPSTs, then most complaints would be about plumbers due to sheer volume.)
It’s also important to recognize that there is often a big difference between technicians who work for agencies and technicians who don’t. Cops and firefighters who become techs often do so because they had to, and they may or may not have car-seat-aged children of their own. The technicians who tend to frequent Facebook groups and car-seat.org are usually coming from a different place. Many of them chose to become certified because of a passion, often to keep their own children safe.
That’s not to say there isn’t overlap, and it’s certainly true that many people who “had to” become techs develop a passion for it, or at least an appreciation for it.
So when a parent says a firefighter told her she had to turn her child forward-facing even though he could still rear-face, or a police officer told her she could LATCH a seat beyond the weight limit, what are we to think?
First, it’s possible the “technician” isn’t a technician, or is perhaps one whose certification has expired.
Another possibility is that the person is a current tech who doesn’t have a good grasp of particular seats or current recommendations. And that is where the real conundrum lies. Why aren’t these techs more informed? A lot of it comes down to the time they can afford to spend on car-seat-related issues.
My husband was a fireman for more than 30 years. He always cringes at the perception of firefighters lazing around the station playing checkers, because the reality is quite different.
During any 24-hour shift, his unit could be involved in several activities including fire inspections at local businesses, school programs, station tours, flushing fire hydrants, maintaining fire apparatus, and writing reports. He also had several certifications he needed to keep current, involving federal and local training requirements for firefighting and EMS (including CPR). Those each involve several hours and require keeping up with protocol changes and updates. That’s all on top of putting out fires, cutting people out of crashed vehicles, and trying to revive heart-attack victims.
That doesn’t leave a lot of time to read up on the newest high-weight-harness seats or the latest AAP statements. I can spend hours each week on reading up on the latest trends but a firefighter likely can’t, even if he or she would really like to.
Another problem is that Child Passenger Safety isn’t a high priority for many departments. Car crashes pose a far greater risk to children than residential fires do, yet departments are more likely to spend time and money educating people about fire escape routes and Stop, Drop, and Roll. When programs need to be cut, Child Passenger Safety might be the first to go. Because of that, it might be difficult for technicians to get time off work to attend a CEU class needed for recertification.
Yet another issue is that the requirements to be a technician are really quite low. Granted, I haven’t read the new curriculum, but the one I certified under was very basic. (A lot of material was covered, but the open-book quizzes didn’t do much to help the information sink in.) The requirements for CEUs (essentially six hours of work over a two-year period) is laughable. Not much can be learned and retained in that amount of time. Raising the standards would probably make for better technicians, but it would also make for fewer technicians. It’s a matter of quality vs. quantity, and I’m not sure it’s possible to find a happy middle ground.
My point is this: I have yet to meet a firefighter or police officer who wasn’t dedicated to protecting the public. No public safety officer wants to see kids get hurt, and they risk their lives every day doing their best to keep them safe. If a police/fire CPST isn’t familiar with a particular seat or recommendation, it’s probably not that they don’t care; it’s probably that they don’t know, and the reason they don’t know might be because they’re already stretched so thin with other responsibilities.
Ideally, all technicians would hold vast amounts of knowledge and experience. Ideally parents should be able to take their seat to any tech and know with 100% confidence that they will drive away with their seat perfectly installed. Ideally, parents wouldn’t need technicians at all because ideally seats would be easy enough to install without help.
The reality is that every tech—no matter how informed or how experienced or who they work for—is capable of making a mistake. As much as parents want to rely on the firefighter or cop or CPST-plumber or CPST-stay-at-home-mom, ultimately parents are responsible for their own child’s safety. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers or easy ways to guarantee that every tech will be a “good” one. Parents need to know that if a tech’s advice or installation seem wrong, it’s okay to question authority and get a second opinion, either from a different tech or online.