FORT BRAGG, N.C. - When Fort Bragg Fire and Emergency Services began its child safety passenger program in October 2007, it was staffed by only a couple technicians. Today, the program boasts nearly 20 certified technicians who are able to inspect, install and service child safety seats, said deputy fire chief Mark Melvin.

The technicians take a four-day class of 32 to 36 hours to earn certification. The safety program has been so widely promoted and effective that the department has won the North Carolina Child Passenger Safety Program of the Year Award for 2008. The award will be presented to the department at the state's Child Passenger Safety Conference March 13 at Atlantic Beach, N.C. Since the program's implementation, the fire department has made contact with more than 2,500 caregivers, Melvin said.

More than 300 child safety seats have been installed and another 300 to 400 have been inspected.

"We inspect them and make sure they're installed correctly; if not, we do a reinstall," he said.

Fort Bragg Fire and Emergency Services coordinates with the Womack Maternity Care Outreach Program and its Expectant Mothers Program to ensure that passenger seats are not only distributed, but safely installed. The department uses a PowerPoint demonstration to educate parents about the rules and regulations regarding safety seats, Melvin said.

If a child is younger than 8 years old and weighs less than 80 pounds, according to the Web site, state law requires that the child be secured in a child restraint device, or CRD. Children may be secured in a properly fitted seat belt at age 8, regardless of weight, or at 80 pounds regardless of age, or whichever comes first. If a child is less than five years old and 40 pounds, the CRD must be installed in the rear seat. Front seat installation is allowed if the CRD is designed for use with air bags.

Fire personnel are trained to look for compliance with those regulations, said Lt. Steven Stewart, a team leader at Fort Bragg Fire and Emergency Services. They check to ensure that the correct seat has been selected based on the child's age, size and physical development, he said. The seat must be easy to use each time, not be on a recall list and must come with an instruction manual. The back seat is the safest location and lower anchors and tethers for children, or the LATCH system works best, preventing the seat from moving forward or side to side by no more than one inch.

When first-time mother Samantha Birkholz had concerns about the location of her seven-month-old son, Dorian's safety seat, she and her husband, Staff Sgt. Patrick Birkholz of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, visited the fire station at the intersection of Honeycutt Road and Knox Street.

"We weren't sure if we had it in right or what was the safest spot because we have an SUV," Samantha said. She said firemen not only told them that the back seat was the safest spot, but they also tightened the safety seat, as opposed to allowing the seat belt to retract as the Birkholz's had routinely done.

"We left there feeling really good that something we were doing was right," Samantha said.

Passenger seat safety checkpoints have been set up at stations Nos. 1, 3 and 5, said Melvin.

"They can go to any of those stations and the staff on duty will be glad to inspect their seat, reinstall it and if you bring in a seat that shows damage or wear and tear, we will replace it for free," he said.

Seats are often donated by the N.C. Safe Kids Association and by the Cumberland County Safe Kids Coalition. This is the first time that Fort Bragg Fire and Emergency Services has won the Child Passenger Safety Program of the Year.

"It was great; we were shocked," said Melvin. "This is a North Carolina award so there are firefighters from all over North Carolina competing for it, so for us to be able to be selected it was definitely an honor and a tribute to the guys who worked so hard to be able to get our message out to the community and be very proactive in their approach to the child safety program."

According to, drivers who do not adhere to state regulations regarding the transportation of children may be subjected to a fine not to exceed $25, full court cost of $120 and two points on their driver's license. No insurance points will be added. But, there is a more pressing incentive for parents and guardians to follow proper safety protocol in transporting children - safety.

"I encourage people to take advantage of the services to make sure their children, which are their precious gifts in life, are safe every time they drive the road," Stewart said.