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  Humans Behaving Badly

Mobile Home Safety

In Baltimore's Druid Hill neighborhood, Bethany Strong Backes is trying hard not to be impatient. But the sun is hot, the air is muggy, and this morning's weather forecast mentioned the possibility of hail. She stands and sips from a bottle of water in front of a Healthy Start community clinic, where organizers are setting up a neighborhood health fair. She is waiting for the CareS mobile safety center to arrive, and it's late.

Backes is a Hopkins certified health education specialist, and she's also project director for CareS, a 40-foot truck that has been converted into a mobile home-safety demonstration. After Kevin Hair of the Baltimore Fire Department finally snugs the truck up to the curb, Backes unlocks the doors and reveals a set of safety exhibits designed to demonstrate many of the hazards to children posed by a typical Baltimore dwelling. CareS — an acronym of Children are Safe — shows parents how to make their houses safer. One aspect of the ecology of home safety is that, paradoxically, home safety messages seem more effective when delivered elsewhere than in the home. Hopkins researchers developed the mobile center after studying families in East Baltimore and learning that parents responded well to visiting a child safety center and access to low-cost safety products.

Art students from the Maryland Institute College of Art and designers from the Maryland Science Center collaborated on the exhibits, which have recreated a Baltimore row house, of sorts, inside the truck. In the front end, there's a short section of stairs, for demonstrating stair gates; the steps include a few kids' shoes and toys, to point out the hazard posed by clutter on a stairway. Across from that exhibit is a kitchen, complete with a stove, a silhouette of a child just tall enough to be reaching for a lit burner, and cabinets that contain examples of hazardous materials like rodent poison that need to be stored securely away from little hands. Further down the truck is a bathtub and a light-up display that portrays how easy it is to burn a child with too-hot bathwater. At the far end of the truck is a child's bedroom, used primarily for mini-classes in fire safety. It includes a smoke alarm and a machine that generates "smoke" so children can learn what to do in the event of a fire.

This morning, first on board is a young African American mother toting her toddler, Akire. Backes gently quizzes the mother: Does her house have stair gates? Yes, three of them, purchased from Wal-Mart. Does she understand how careful she must be not to draw too hot a bath for little Akire? Yes, in fact she has one of the special rubber ducky floating thermometers that the CareS center sells. She adds that if the baby is in the tub, she never leaves the room to answer the door or the telephone. Her facial expression never changes, but she's attentive, and before leaving the truck she asks for additional literature. Backes smiles and tells her she's a model parent.

Andrea Gielen with Kevin D. Williams, a paramedic and firefighter. Meanwhile, in the back of the truck, Hair the fireman — the Baltimore fire department is a partner in the CareS program — lectures five squirmy little boys and one very cute little girl about fire safety. The bedroom exhibit includes a door that gets hot to the touch. Should smoke alarms in their houses go off in the middle of the night, Hair tells them, they must always feel the door before opening it. He asks them to demonstrate, and when one boy confidently slaps his palm on the door, Hair tells him to use the back of his hand instead, to avoid a burn. As the kids leave, one of the boys says he wants to be an emergency medical technician, and Hair pulls him aside to tell him how much an EMT has to know. Stay in school and study hard, the fireman says. The boy nods.

Research by HBS professor Andrea Gielen has shown that providing parents with access to reduced-cost safety products works to significantly improve home safety. From the mobile center, parents can buy a car seat, a bicycle helmet, or straps for securing furniture to the wall for significantly less than their retail prices. Children climb, especially shelves, Backes says, and they can easily pull over a piece of furniture on top of themselves. In the exhibit's bedroom, a little girl unwittingly demonstrates this when she spots a toy she wants on an upper shelf of a little plastic bookcase. With no hesitation she fearlessly clambers up the shelves to reach it. The shelves lean out a bit but do not topple because they've been secured to the wall. Point made.

Follow this link to "Humans Behaving Badly"
Follow this link to "Networking Opportunities"
Follow this link to "TV's Healthy Influence"
Follow this link to "Mobile Home Safety"
Return to September 2006 Table of Contents

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