On August 11, 2019, every parent’s worst nightmare happened in Erie, Pennsylvania, as a fire in an overnight family child care home took the lives of five young children ranging in age from 9 months old to 8 years old. Harris Family Daycare was regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and operated out of a three-story home for nearly 20 years. The owner offered nontraditional (and overnight) hour care to meet the needs of working parents in her community.
When I saw the news day, my heart was heavy and my thoughts were with the families and the family child care owner.
In the United States, one out of five adult workers has a nonstandard work schedule (working early morning hours, evening hours, or overnight compared to those who work more traditional day time jobs). Among low-income families, studies have found that half of parents work jobs during nontraditional hours (e.g., cleaning offices at night or working second shift retail or food service jobs). For families who need child care during nontraditional hours, the search for child care is extraordinarily difficult. Few child care centers offer care during nontraditional hours and about one-third of regulated family child care homes offer nontraditional hour care.
In the Erie case, the mother of four of the children who died was working as a nurse during an overnight shift. The father of three of the children was a fireman responding to a call at a different location. The fire occurred at 1:15 a.m. presumably while everyone was sleeping. Fire investigators found one smoke detector located in the attic and preliminary reports indicate the fire may have been caused through an extension cord malfunction.
For regulated child care (centers and homes), federal law requires an annual inspection for health, safety and fire standards. However, fire safety rules and inspection compliance procedures are set individually by each state. To operate a licensed family child care home in North Carolina,
- A battery operated smoke detector or an electronically operated (with a battery backup) smoke detector is required.
- For homes operating overnight, a battery operated smoke detector or an electronically operated (with a battery backup) smoke detector is required in each room where children are sleeping.
- An annual licensing inspection is required and a local fire inspection is required if the county in which the home is located requires it.
How do the North Carolina child care licensing requirements measure up against National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommendations?
Unrelated to whether a home is used for child care purposes, NFPA requires that at a minimum, smoke alarms be installed in each sleeping room and on every level of the home. NFPA recommends that smoke alarms be tested once per month. For smoke alarms with non-replaceable 10-year batteries, the battery should be replaced immediately if the alarm chirps (indicating the battery is low). For smoke alarms with any other type of battery, batteries should be replaced once per year.
In the case of the Erie family child care home fire, there was confusion about whose job it was to check for smoke alarm compliance (e.g., the P.A. Department of Human Services during annual inspections or the local fire department). Pennsylvania state legislators are now drafting legislation to clarify roles and responsibilities and requirements. Perhaps it is time for us to review those regulations and make sure that lessons learned from Pennsylvania are used to inform safety practices here in North Carolina.
Fire safety generally is a large issue. North Carolina does need fire safety rules and effective monitoring in place for licensed child care. At the same time, the public generally needs to be aware of potential fire danger and NFPA smoke alarm recommendations. It is important that all centers and homes be equipped with working smoke detectors, that those smoke alarms are regularly tested and that batteries are replaced on an annual basis. At $5 – $20, many smoke alarms are an inexpensive investment.
Particularly for licensed family child care homes, it is critical to ensure that fire protection policies are clear, and that the roles and responsibilities for safety checks are clear as well. Parents work nontraditional hours. Child care is needed, which may involve hours in which everyone in the household is asleep. The tragedy in Erie, P.A. gives us a chance to review fire safety rules for N.C. licensed family child care homes and centers. A child’s life depends on it.
 Nontraditional Hour Child Care in the District of Columbia (2018), Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/99768/nontraditional-hour_child_care_in_the_district_of_columbia_0.pdf
 Nonstandard Work Schedules and the Well-Being of Low-Income Families (2013), Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/32696/412877-Nonstandard-Work-Schedules-and-the-Well-being-of-Low-Income-Families.PDF
 National Survey of Early Care and Education Fact Sheet, April 2015. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/factsheet_nonstandard_hours_provision_of_ece_toopre_041715_508.pdf
 https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/13/us/erie-day-care-fire-inspections/index.html; https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/five-children-killed-pennsylvania-day-care-fire-n1041231; https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pennsylvania-day-care-fire-firefighter-loses-3-kids-in-erie-blaze-that-killed-5-children/; https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/08/13/pennsylvania-daycare-caught-fire-did-not-have-enough-smoke-detectors/2002744001/
 The Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-186), https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-113s1086enr/pdf/BILLS-113s1086enr.pdf
 National Fire Safety Association recommendations and Fire Safety Code, https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Staying-safe/Safety-equipment/Smoke-alarms/Installing-and-maintaining-smoke-alarms