Each year, nearly 40 children nationwide die when locked in hot vehicles, bringing the total since 1998 to nearly 700 deaths. When we consider the hundreds of pets who have suffered the same fate, it just adds incentive to the attempts to reduce this seemingly preventable tragedy. Ohio has recorded juvenile deaths of its own, so this is not an isolated problem. But the state took a big stand this spring to help curb the issue.
In May of this year, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed into law Senate Bill 215, creating immunity from civil liability for any Good Samaritan who attempts to intervene for a pet or a child locked in a hot car. As of Aug. 29, when the law took effect, people who find a child or pet in a hot vehicle can intervene by forcibly entering the vehicle prior to emergency personnel responding without the fear of litigation if they do so.
Following the Proper Procedure
While the spirit of the law is designed to limit the hesitation of a Good Samaritan, the letter of the law is very specific as to the proper procedure to follow:
- Determine first that the car is indeed locked.
- Determine that there is no reasonable way for the child or pet to exit.
- Assess the child or pet and determine if they appear to be in imminent danger of suffering harm if not removed from the car. By definition, “harm” means injury or death.
- When possible, contact law enforcement, the fire department or 911 prior to taking action. If you feel you must forcibly enter prior to contact, notify them soon after.
- Do not use more force than is necessary to enter the car.
- Place a notice with your contact information, the location of the pet or child and a phone number on the windshield of the vehicle.
- Remain with the child or pet in a shaded area until arrival by law enforcement and emergency responders.
Recognizing Someone in Danger
Children suffering from heat-related emergencies will not have a normal skin color, but will appear flushed or pale. They may be sweaty, but if their temperature is hot enough to cause heatstroke, they actually lose the ability to sweat and will be dry. Tap on the window several times to determine if they are asleep or unresponsive. If their eyes are open, you will note that they appear sunken in their eye sockets, and there will be no tears produced when they cry.
As far as pets go, most likely you will note rapid panting, with a bright red tongue and gums. Their saliva will be thick and sticky, and the animal will appear weak and lethargic. Go with your instinct based on what you see, but alert authorities as rapidly as possible so help is on the way.
How to Intervene
While many people may wish to intervene, the trick is to have the skill set available to do so safely, without causing more harm to the child/pet or yourself. Breaking car windows is not as easy as it looks in the movies. Car windows are made of tempered glass, making them difficult to shatter. They are resistant to blunt force, so pounding your fists on the glass, or even using a rubber mallet will not penetrate the glass.
The best instrument to use is something with a hard sharp point to fracture the tempered glass. Examples of items you may find in your car include the point of a pocketknife, a screwdriver, a tire iron or the prongs of a hammer. Be sure to wrap your hand up in a shirt or covering of some sort prior to attempting to break the glass. Turn your head away from the point of impact and close your eyes as well, in case any fragments fly. Choose a window that is as far away from the victim as possible, so that the shattered glass does not fall directly on them.
No one ever wants to come upon a situation like this, but knowing how to intervene and obtain help for a child or pet who has been locked in a hot car takes away some of the anxiety associated with it. We hope through this new legislation that the number of deaths from this type of tragedy is incredibly reduced. Be mindful of your surroundings, and be prepared to intervene if the situation warrants that action. You may save a child or a pet from a deadly situation.
Diane Simon, RN, CEN, is the Trauma Coordinator/Registrar for ProMedica Defiance Regional Hospital.