GRIFFITH — The infant jumped up and down on her bouncy seat, shaking a toy fire truck. "Where's my fire?" her 3-year-old brother asked, wearing a plastic firefighter hat. Four firemen milled about the apartment, as the kids' mom prepared dinner.

They were all reuniting for the first time since the first responders helped save the family — in more ways than one.

A few months earlier, the Griffith Fire Department had responded to a call of a gas smell at an apartment on the city's north side. It turns out someone had left their stove on.

While there, the firefighters noticed that the tenant's daughter and two grandkids slept on an air mattress on the living room floor. The men told the daughter, 25-year-old Asia Wilson, about the "ABCs" of sale sleep: that infants should always sleep alone, on their backs, in cribs. They gave her a free portable crib for her newborn, Ava Howard.

It was the first instance of a Northwest Indiana emergency-response agency utilizing a program designed to save the lives of babies.

The Direct On-Scene Education, or DOSE, program has been spreading across the state as a way to reduce Indiana's high infant mortality rate. Accidental suffocation or strangulation during sleep is the third-leading cause of infant deaths in Indiana. The materials and training are provided by the Indiana State Department of Health, free of charge.

Under DOSE, first responders are trained to be on the lookout for unsafe sleep situations — bed-sharing with parents or siblings, cribs filled with blankets and toys — and educate the caregivers accordingly. The program, which also distributes free cribs, was developed by a Florida fire department that had been responding to an inordinate number of infant sleep deaths.

"You don't have to sling somebody over your shoulder and run them out of a building to affect a life in the fire service," said Griffith fire Lt. Joe Martin.

The St. John Fire Department was the first Northwest Indiana agency certified in DOSE, followed by Griffith. Dozens of other Region agencies have since joined the program.

"We fight fires and save babies," said Mike Sharp, a St. John firefighter and paramedic. "We're the perfect people to do this. People let us in their homes. They trust us. They'll give us their baby and get in the car and follow us."

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Earlier this week, the Griffith firefighters reunited with Wilson and 9-month-old Ava at Wilson's new apartment. They gave her 3-year-old son, Darius Howard Jr., a plastic fire hat.

"She likes watching Dory," Wilson said of her daughter, as she turned on the TV and got ready to make dinner. "I'm tired of watching Dory. We've been watching Dory all day."

Wilson, a single mother who works as a bus driver, told the firefighters Ava has been sleeping in her Pack 'n Play every night. But, she said, one of the bars is broken, so she takes her daughter out as soon as she wakes up so she doesn't try to stand up and hold onto the bar.

The guys went and checked it out. Sure enough, the crib was busted. So they radioed one of their colleagues back at the fire station and had him bring over a new Pack 'n Play.

As he was setting it up, Martin asked, "You got a carbon monoxide detector here?"

Wilson said no. The firefighters pulled one out and installed it in her apartment, along with a new smoke detector.

Wilson is the only person to receive a crib from the department so far. Firefighters have provided education and assessed the infant sleep situations on a handful of other calls.

Martin only wishes the program would have existed sooner.

"How many cribs could we have given away in the past 10 years or five years?" he said. "I can think of all of the apartments I've been in and seen blow-up mattresses on the floor. Even that $800,000 house could have a crib with stuffed animals and pillows. I left a lot of places saying, 'Ehh.'

"My hope is that every fire department will do this."

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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.