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Safe car seats

Brandi Ballinger, right, helps Michelle Schilling fit a new car seat for Schilling’s daughter before strapping it to the back seat, facing backwards.

When Brandi Ballinger of Kelso signed up to become a certified car seat technician two decades ago, she thought she knew how to properly install a one. Soon after starting to earn her certification, though, she saw how much she needed to learn.

“I thought I was a pro. I had two kids. … But when I got certified, both my seats were in wrong and I had no clue,” Ballinger said.

Today, she’s considered one of the best car seat technicians, and her two decades of effort to educate the public about proper use of child safety seats has won her a national award. Last month Ballinger was named the “National Child Passenger Safety Technician of the Year” by the National Child Passenger Safety Board at the Lifesavers Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is the first person from the Pacific Northwest to win the award since it began 20 years ago, she said.

“I’m very honored to be nominated. I had no idea when I got the call that I had been nominated, let alone chosen. So that’s really exciting,” Ballinger said. “It was nice to be recognized for all the good work we do in this community.”

After becoming Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue’s public education coordinator in 2001, Ballinger began reaching out to local safety education groups. She quickly became connected with Safe Kids Lower Columbia, which helped start a car seat education and safety program at Cowlitz 2.

She is one of 12 car seat technicians in Cowlitz County and one of 39,000 nationwide. She said education is the most important factor in proper installation of child seats. Of the 253 car seats Safe Kids Lower Columbia checked in 2016, 88 percent were installed incorrectly, and that’s an improvement over previous years, she said. The national average is 75 percent.

Depending on the age or type of vehicle and the age or type of car seat, each installation can be different. Most people think it’s just standard across the board, but it’s not, Ballinger said.

“It was an eye opener for me. I didn’t suspect I was doing anything wrong, either. Without someone educating me I never would have corrected that, and that’s all we’re trying to do — is keep kids safe,” Ballinger said. “Every seat is different and every vehicle is different and … we help mesh the two together so they work.”

Ballinger said one of the most common misuses of a car seat is that parents graduate their children to the next step too early, either before the child is ready or before the law allows it. State law requires children to be in a restraint system until age 8, or until they’re 4-feet, 9-inches tall. Every child under age 13 must ride in the back seat of a car.

Car seats can also expire, she said. And they are often the wrong size for the child. Mistakes are common when locking the seat belts and harnesses into place, Ballenger said. And because most people just don’t know, it leads to many types of misuses, which can in turn lead to child injuries.

“Without education, they’re probably not going to know how to use it properly,” Ballinger said. “It’s super important to keep children safe out there.”

Ballinger said in order to spread awareness and educate the public, Cowlitz 2, along with Safe Kids, puts on free car seat clinics every third Saturday of the month from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Cowlitz 2’s headquarters at 701 Vine St. in Kelso. At the clinics, people can have their car seats checked for proper installation and learn how to make the right steps.

The clinic also offers a discount program: If a family finds out through the program that is has an expired car seat or one in bad condition, the family can purchase a new seat for 75 percent off. The child has to be there at the time the seat is purchased, so technicians can make sure the seat is the right size and fit, Ballinger said.

If a family can’t make it to a clinic, they can make an appointment with one of four technicians throughout the county, she said.

Ballinger said last year was the first year the misuse rate in Cowlitz County dropped below 90 percent. She wants that number to drop, and public awareness of the program is vital, she said.

“We almost kind of work in the shadows sometimes. People don’t realize the service here in the community,” Ballinger said.

Sarah Hoskins, administrative assistant for the Longview Fire Department, said she wasn’t surprised when Ballinger won the national safety award.

“She’s someone who has been very involved in the program for the last 10 years. She’s a normal tech. She’s somebody that techs can relate to. … She brings to the table that anybody can win and she’s one of us,” Hoskins said. “She’s done a lot for the community.”

Ballinger said she’s hoping to continue raising car seat safety awareness throughout Cowlitz County.

“For me it’s all about the kiddos, it’s all about the children. Not just to see how many people we help year to year, but the events and education we provide to families, they’re so appreciative of the help,” Ballinger said. “Without our program they would not be able to obtain a car seat that’s safe for their children to keep them protected in the event of a crash.”

“I thought I was a pro. I had two kids. … But when I got certified, both my seats were in wrong and I had no clue.” — Brandi Ballinger National Child Passenger Safety Technician of the Year

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Contact Daily News reporter Denver Pratt at 360-577-2541 or dpratt@tdn.com

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