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When it comes to child safety seats, even the pros can get confused

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Marcia Nelesen
January 18, 2013

— Kate Womack and her husband, Derrick, were ready to play musical chairs when they pulled their two vehicles into Fire Station No. 4.

They brought five child safety seats, two of them new.

Their daughter had grown out of her infant car seat, bumping her older brother into a new one. Because the couple have two vehicles, they decided it would be easier to install two seats in each vehicle.

So the Womacks returned to the Child Car Seat Inspection Program, which helped them the first time they needed car seat help.

Minutes earlier, Erin Logue of Janesville had arrived, worried that the car seat she received from her mom for Christmas didn't face backward, as it should for babies.

Janesville Fire Chief Jim Jensen said he's been amazed at the popularity of the program that offers trained technicians from the fire and police departments to teach parents how to properly install safety seats.

Low-cost seats also are available for low-income residents.

Janesville fire stations hold half-day events every month. Help also is available by appointment.

Parents arrive in droves. As many as 45 have shown up during one four-hour session, said Lt. Jamie Kessenich, who spearheads the program for the fire department.

Car seats are a serious but complicated business, and concerned parents often wonder whether they are installed correctly.

The array of models is confusing. Directions are difficult to understand. Not all models fit all vehicles. Even having other passengers in the vehicle must be factored into a seat's position.

Kessenich recalled how years ago she made an appointment at the Rock County Sheriff's Office to find out if her car seat was installed correctly.

It was not.

"It was kind of scary," Kessenich recalled. "I'm thinking, I'm in the safety business. I should be able to figure this out.'"

Janesville police and fire officials decided the fire department was a better fit to host the program. Kessenich became a child passenger safety technician and then an instructor.

Ten firefighters and police officers now are trained to help at the clinics and take appointments.

In 2008, Kessenich received a state grant to create a child passenger safety seat fitting station. Yearly grants allow her to offer free seats to low-income people and to sell seats at cost. Money donated by American Family Insurance purchased the trailer to store the seats.

The technicians encourage parents to try installing the seats before they arrive at clinics so the parents have some idea how the seats work.

Most seats arrive with at least one problem, including car seats and harnesses that are too loose or seats that are positioned at improper angles. Parents often turn children to face the front too early. They should face the rear until they are 2 years old. Booster seats are required for older children so seat belts fall at the right places on their hips.

Car seats expire after six years, something some parents don't know.

"Our ultimate goal is, when they leave here, they can go to clean the car and they can put it (the car seat) in exactly like we did it," Kessenich said.

On Tuesday, Logue and family friend Dennis Hayes listened as Kessenich gave them a car seat primer.

"The closer (the harness) gets to the chest, the better off they are," Kessenich said, demonstrating with the width of her finger.

"I want to make sure she's OK," Hayes said, referring to 9-month-old Gracelynn.

Nearby, officer Laurie Valley did acrobatics in the confines of the Womack van, sitting on a car seat to ratchet it in securely.

Kate Womack said she appreciated the lesson and recommended it to all parents.

"It was just really reassuring to know that they were in properly and securely," Womack said.



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