ST. JOHN — "It's all about the babies."

Mike Sharp, a St. John firefighter and paramedic, was summing up the purpose of a new program in Northwest Indiana, where first responders are educating parents about infant safe sleep.

Representatives of several local fire departments, police stations and health agencies were trained Monday in the program, called Direct On Scene Education, or DOSE. As part of DOSE, first responders are trained to be on the lookout for unsafe infant sleeping conditions when responding to calls, and provide safe sleep education and portable cribs to parents and caregivers.

"A motivated fire department, law enforcement agency, EMS department, health department that really wants to help kids has an opportunity to do so because this is just such an easy thing to do," said Capt. James Carroll of Fort Lauderdale (Florida) Fire Rescue, who developed DOSE in 2011 in collaboration with a nurse practitioner. "We have so many encounters, we go into so many homes and we're just inside the house, right?"

Indiana has the eighth-highest infant mortality rate in the nation. In 2015, 613 Indiana babies died before their first birthdays. 

The third-leading cause of those infant deaths was accidental suffocation or strangulation in bed. Many of those deaths used to be classified as sudden infant death syndrome, but medical examiners are increasingly realizing they're being caused by asphyxiation during sleep. Public health experts warn that infants should always be put to sleep alone, on their backs and in cribs.

"There are a lot of babies we can save," said Kelly Cunningham, DOSE administrator for the Indiana State Department of Health. 

The state health department recently has been training agencies across the state in DOSE, and provides training materials, safe sleep books, sleep sacks, crib sheets and portable cribs to departments free of charge.

The St. John and Griffith fire departments are the first two in the Region to have gone live with the DOSE program. Both departments now carry infant sleep education kits on calls. Griffith fire recently distributed its first portable crib to a mother firefighters encountered during a call.

DOSE will now be part of the training for new EMTs and firefighters in Northwest Indiana. From 2011 to 2015, Northwest Indiana had a higher rate of infant mortality (7.4 deaths per 1,000 live births) than the state as a whole (7.2).

On Monday, Carroll showed reenacted photos of infants who died during their sleep in Fort Lauderdale: a baby lodged between two twin mattresses that had been put together; a dad who had rolled over on his infant child as they slept; a baby trapped between a mattress and a wall.

He gave an example of the pitch first responders can give to caregivers: "'Is there any way I can see where your baby sleeps to see if there are any hazards? This is something we're doing as a fire department because a lot of babies are dying in this state from suffocation hazards. Things like blankets and bumpers and stuffed animals are a real danger in the crib.'

"Boom. That probably took like 20 seconds," he said. "Don't hesitate to educate. Don't hesitate to pull out hazards if you find them." He said he has taken power tools and open bottles of medications out of cribs.

Since 2011, Carroll has only had one mom refuse to let him see her baby's conditions, because she said her house was too messy. So he handed her a safe sleep kit. That's the least a first responder can do, he said.

He said his city used to average seven to nine unsafe sleep deaths per year. Now it averages one to three.

"As of today we have yet to ever have a documented case where a dead baby was found in a home that had gotten this information," he said. "That's a pretty good deal. You know that if you give one of these kits out, you're not going to be (responding to a call of) a dead baby."

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Health reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.