Most of us involved in CPS have a story about what launched them into the field. For some it may have just been a requirement of a job, for others it may have been born out of some personal tragedy, and in some cases it may have been the result of a chance encounter with an influential person. However, “influential” doesn’t always imply it was a positive encounter …
Back in the summer of 2009, our oldest was just having her 18-month “well baby” check at a local military hospital (which shall remain nameless to protect the innocent … and the guilty!) Back then, they brought families in for a sort of “mass” appointment where they would cover some basic information as a group and then split up for various checks and immunizations. At that time I wasn’t involved in the world of CPS other than with my own daughter, however I had taken an excellent academic course before she was born taught by the Fire Chief at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. My wife had signed us up for the class and I recall being rather ambivalent about the prospect of giving up my Saturday to learn about something as benign as car seats. The class turned out to be excellent, in no small part due to the enthusiasm this particular Fire Chief had for child passenger safety.
Now fast-forward again to summer ’09. All of the parents are in the waiting room of the pediatric clinic when a young Airman walks out to give some very basic information. Things like “your child should be eating solids” and “should be taking 1-2 naps per day,” but then she says “car seats” followed by a long pause after which she continues, “so … 18 months, they need to be forward-facing now.” (Insert sound effect of needle scraping across record here.) I immediately raised my hand and said, “Excuse me, I think you mis-spoke – what you really meant to say was they can be forward-facing at 1year and 20 pounds, but they’re safer staying rear-facing, right?” To which her response, delivered with a dismissive tone was, “no, you’re wrong – I’ve been doing this for two years.”
Now, interestingly, I happened to be in “civvies” that morning, which in retrospect was a great thing because had I been in uniform wearing Officer rank, she would have just said “oh, yes sir, I’m sure you’re right” – but because I was just “some dude” that morning I was able to get a first-hand glimpse into how awful their program really was. I should also mention that, at the time I was nothing like the “ERF zealot” I’ve now become. In fact, I think the only thing I’d read on the subject prior to this point was, coincidentally, Car-Safety.org’s excellent page on the subject. I will even admit that I had turned her forward-facing just after one year old “just for a couple of trips” because she “wanted to see outside” or some other silly excuse. However, I am a huge believer that when we know better, we have to do better, and I do my best to live by that principle.
Now, back to the story –
After that, I turned to the rest of the parents and said “OK, that’s incorrect, but don’t believe either of us – please look it up for yourself when you get home.” As you can imagine, that didn’t endear me much to the Airman in question. I pulled her aside after she was done talking in an attempt to say that I wasn’t trying to undermine her, but that she was giving some dangerously incorrect information. She again told me I was wrong, so I asked to see her supervisor before she turned and disappeared behind the cypher-locked door into the bowels of the hospital. I waited for about 15 minutes for a supervisor, and when none arrived I approached the front desk to ask how much longer I was going to have to wait. I was then greeted by a Senior Airman (and for those of you who don’t know military rank, we’ve now gone from two stripes to three) who handed me a crummy copy of an old AAP handout (which of course supported what I was saying) and told, “we talked to our car seat experts, and they say you’re wrong.” Now, like most people, I try to avoid direct confrontation when I can, but at this point I went absolutely ballistic! In my loudest, and most perturbed voice, I replied “Well let me talk to your car seat experts then!”
At this point I was still in a “heightened emotional state” shall we say, but I was honestly expecting this had turned into a game of “telephone” gone awry, and when I actually had a chance to talk to these “car seat experts” they would be thrilled that I’d caught such an egregious mistake. Unfortunately my hopeful expectations were immediately dashed. It turns out their “car seat experts” were the contract security guards at the front of the hospital, and as I walked up to their desk for what I thought might be a friendly conversation, I was instead met with a full frontal assault. The next few minutes were sort of a blur, but it consisted mainly of gems like “whadda you know, what’re you, like 22 years old?!?” (which in different circumstances would have been flattering since I was 32 at the time) and “I was a Cop for 24 years!” and “you’re just arguing semantics.” Clearly, however, this gentleman did not understand the meaning of the word “semantics” because we were most certainly not saying the same thing in a different way.
After a few verbal volleys, he actually threatened to handcuff me and escort me off the premises (which in retrospect would have been a much better story!) By that point I had realized there was no point in continuing the argument, but as I walked away, he decided to call his supervisor to report this “very unreasonable and belligerent” individual at a volume obviously intended for my ears. I then spun back around and said, “You know what, why don’t you get your supervisor down here to talk to me!!!”
Again, at the time, I really thought I might be able to start over and convince somebody there was a serious problem that needed addressing. But as you can probably guess, I was mistaken. Seriously mistaken. I asked said supervisor to please join me in private because I had at least regained my composure enough to realize another public kerfuffle wasn’t going to make either of us look good. Once in private though things went quickly downhill. I tried the standard arguments all of us know, but to no avail. I kept getting responses like “physics has nothing to do with it” and “rear-facing seats only go to 22 pounds” and the one that he kept repeating, and made my blood pressure go through the roof was “Is this really worth it?”
My answer to that question is of course, an emphatic YES!!! And furthermore, if you don’t think it’s worth it then please do everyone a favor and stop passing yourself off as a “car seat expert.” This experience was one of the most frustrating of my entire life, but in many ways I’m glad it happened. If it hadn’t, I likely would have turned my kids forward-facing at age two (which I still did for a month or so with our oldest until I did some more research.) I likely wouldn’t be providing my kids with state of the art protection every time they get in the car. I wouldn’t have written an award-winning article for the Air Force safety magazine. I wouldn’t have become a Tech, or had the opportunity to influence parents, or had the opportunity to be writing this blog entry right now.
So, the question becomes, what’s my point? Well, I have a theory that while the CPS community does an excellent job of reaching out to the most at-risk demographics, a large segment of the population would use best practice if only the guidance were clear, concise, and unified. I also believe that Techs have an ethical duty to at least mention best practice before they judge any caregiver unable to “get it.” Your average parent (as I was at the beginning) assumes if they’ve taken the time to go to a Seat Check event, or the Fire Station, that they’ve left with the best, most current information available. Since they make this assumption they’re unlikely to go home and cross-check the information they’ve been given. Remember that class I took from the D-M Fire Chief? I listened intently to everything he said, and I’m sure if he’d spent just five minutes covering the advantages of keeping kids rear-facing I would have “gotten it” and could have avoided the multi-year odyssey that has deposited me in the place I am now. I’ve got to believe that I’m not an anomaly, and more parents and caregivers are ready, willing, and able to “get it” as well — if only we would take a few minutes to explain the theory behind the practice.
AK Dad is a former US Air Force fighter pilot who decided that wasn’t challenging enough and became a stay at home dad to three (usually) wonderful preschoolers. He is also a part-time Officer in the Alaska Air National Guard where he flies search and rescue helicopters and is a Flight and Ground Safety Officer. He became a volunteer CPS Technician in 2012.