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Tampa dads design device to prevent children from dying in hot cars

Jim Friedman, 48, left, an electrical engineer, and Fadi Shamma, 36, a pharmacist for Publix, hope to raise at least $50,000 in this week’s Kickstarter campaign for their device, the Sense a Life.
Jim Friedman, 48, left, an electrical engineer, and Fadi Shamma, 36, a pharmacist for Publix, hope to raise at least $50,000 in this week’s Kickstarter campaign for their device, the Sense a Life.
Published Apr. 5, 2016

TAMPA — Just in the last two years, it's happened to a hospital CEO, a public defender and at least two teachers.

A moment of forgetfulness, then a horrible realization: They left a child in a hot car to die of heatstroke.

About 18 months ago, Tampa dads Jim Friedman and Fadi Shamma were watching their sons play together and got to talking about the most recent spate of hot car deaths.

"It's such a tragedy and I wish somebody would do something about it," Friedman, a 48-year-old electrical engineer, recalls saying.

He and Shamma, 36, who each have two young children, decided to be that somebody. Now they have a prototype for a device they hope will save lives.

Called Sense a Life, the device is activated when the driver's car door opens and provides an audible reminder that a child is in the car seat. If the child is not removed from the seat within a few minutes of the door opening, the device sends an alert to the mobile phone of one or more guardians.

For the last six months, Friedman and Shamma have dedicated nearly all of their time to the endeavor. Friedman already worked from home. Shamma, a pharmacist for Publix, has reduced his hours. They're getting help from a third co-founder, Masud Hossain, a 24-year-old University of South Florida medical student who works as CFO and marketing manager for the endeavor.

The entrepreneurs say no product already on the market sells very well and none works like theirs. Some use a key fob warning system that's vulnerable to interference, Shamma said. Others require modifications to the car and only work on later models.

"Our technology is completely different and 100 percent reliable," he said. "It's so simple."

It took trial and error and three prototypes to get a final version that works well in small cars and big SUVs alike.

The system features two components. A sensor pad placed on the car seat is activated by the weight of a child and sends a signal to a device under the driver's seat. That component has infrared optical technology to sense when the driver's door is opened.

Several companies are already interested in making the product on a mass scale, Shamma said. This week, the team begins a Kickstarter campaign to raise at least $50,000. Donors can receive discounts or entire systems depending on the amount donated. The goal is to keep the retail price under $100.

"We want it to be in every car, so we don't want it to be a financial burden," Shamma said.

Some critics have scoffed at the idea of relying on technology to remember children's safety. Good, attentive parents don't need it, they say.

But statistics and news stories show there are plenty of good parents who make the mistake.

A 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning story by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post noted that leaving children in cars was relatively rare until the early 1990s, when car-safety experts recommended child seats be moved to the back of the car because of the danger posed by passenger-side airbags. Experts said baby seats should also face the rear of the vehicle.

In the last 15 years in the United States, an average of two children per month — and a total of 356 — have died of heatstroke after being left in a stifling vehicle, according to San Jose State University, which tracks incidents for the website noheatstroke.org. Florida ranks second in the nation, behind Texas, in deaths.

The inside of a car can heat up quickly, reaching deadly levels in as little as 10 minutes if the outside temperature is in the low 80s, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Even outside temperatures in the 60s or 70s pose a serious risk of heatstroke. Children can die of heatstroke if their body temperature reaches 107 degrees.

In addition to the deaths, there are thousands more close calls, Shamma said.

Since word has spread about Sense A Life, friends and acquaintances of Shamma and Friedman have shared their own stories. A father who didn't usually take his daughter to school absent-mindedly drove straight to work, but the girl spoke up as he got out of the car. A woman left a child in the car and realized it only after she went back to get her purse.

Just as important, though, is for parents to have a sense of security when a grandparent or babysitter has the kids, Shamma said.

"It can happen to anybody," he said. "You want to have that peace of mind."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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